“We owe a lot to the ancient Indians, teaching us how to count. Without which most modern scientific discoveries would have been impossible.” – Albert Einstein
One of the oldest civilizations in the world, the Indian civilization has a strong tradition of science and technology. Ancient India was a land of sages and seers as well as a land of scholars and scientists. Research has shown that from making the best steel in the world to teaching the world to count, India was actively contributing to the field of science and technology centuries long before modern laboratories were set up. Many theories and techniques discovered by the ancient Indians have created and strengthened the fundamentals of modern science and technology. While some of these groundbreaking contributions have been acknowledged, some are still unknown to most.
Here is a list of 16 contributions, made by ancient Indians to the world of science and technology, that will make you feel proud to be an Indian.
1. The Idea of Zero
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Little needs to be written about the mathematical digit ‘zero’, one of the most important inventions of all time. Mathematician Aryabhata was the first person to create a symbol for zero and it was through his efforts that mathematical operations like addition and subtraction started using the digit, zero. The concept of zero and its integration into the place-value system also enabled one to write numbers, no matter how large, by using only ten symbols.
2. The Decimal System
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India gave the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols – the decimal system. In this system, each symbol received a value of position as well as an absolute value. Due to the simplicity of the decimal notation, which facilitated calculation, this system made the uses of arithmetic in practical inventions much faster and easier.
3. Numeral Notations
Indians, as early as 500 BCE, had devised a system of different symbols for every number from one to nine. This notation system was adopted by the Arabs who called it the hindnumerals. Centuries later, this notation system was adopted by the western world who called them the Arabic numerals as it reached them through the Arab traders.
4. Fibbonacci Numbers
The Fibonacci numbers and their sequence first appear in Indian mathematics as mātrāmeru, mentioned by Pingala in connection with the Sanskrit tradition of prosody. Later on, the methods for the formation of these numbers were given by mathematicians Virahanka, Gopala and Hemacandra , much before the Italian mathematician Fibonacci introduced the fascinating sequence to Western European mathematics.
5. Binary Numbers
Binary numbers is the basic language in which computer programs are written. Binary basically refers to a set of two numbers, 1 and 0, the combinations of which are called bits and bytes. The binary number system was first described by the Vedic scholar Pingala, in his book Chandahśāstra, which is the earliest known Sanskrit treatise on prosody ( the study of poetic metres and verse).
6. Chakravala method of Algorithms
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The chakravala method is a cyclic algorithm to solve indeterminate quadratic equations, including the Pell’s equation. This method for obtaining integer solutions was developed by Brahmagupta, one of the well known mathematicians of the 7th century CE. Another mathematician, Jayadeva later generalized this method for a wider range of equations, which was further refined by Bhāskara II in his Bijaganita treatise.
7. Ruler Measurements
Excavations at Harappans sites have yielded rulers or linear measures made from ivory and shell. Marked out in minute subdivisions with amazing accuracy, the calibrations correspond closely with the hasta increments of 1 3/8 inches, traditionally used in the ancient architecture of South India. Ancient bricks found at the excavation sites have dimensions that correspond to the units on these rulers.
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8. A Theory of Atom
One of the notable scientists of the ancient India wasKanad who is said to have devised the atomic theory centuries before John Dalton was born. He speculated the existence of anu or a small indestructible particles, much like an atom. He also stated that anu can have two states — absolute rest and a state of motion. He further held that atoms of same substance combined with each other in a specific and synchronized manner to produce dvyanuka (diatomic molecules) and tryanuka (triatomic molecules).
9. The Heliocentric Theory
Mathematicians of ancient India often applied their mathematical knowledge to make accurate astronomical predictions. The most significant among them was Aryabhatta whose book, Aryabhatiya, represented the pinnacle of astronomical knowledge at the time. He correctly propounded that the Earth is round, rotates on its own axis and revolves around the Sun i.e the heliocentric theory. He also made predictions about the solar and lunar eclipses, duration of the day as well as the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
10. Wootz Steel
A pioneering steel alloy matrix developed in India, Wootz steel is a crucible steel characterized by a pattern of bands that was known in the ancient world by many different names such as Ukku, Hindwani and Seric Iron. This steel was used to make the famed Damascus swords of yore that could cleave a free-falling silk scarf or a block of wood with the same ease. Produced by the Tamils of the Chera Dynasty, the finest steel of the ancient world was made by heating black magnetite ore in the presence of carbon in a sealed clay crucible kept inside a charcoal furnace.
11. Smelting of Zinc
India was the first to smelt zinc by the distillation process, an advanced technique derived from a long experience of ancient alchemy. The ancient Persians had also attempted to reduce zinc oxide in an open furnace but had failed. Zawar in the Tiri valley of Rajasthan is the world’s first known ancient zinc smelting site. The distillation technique of zinc production goes back to the 12th Century AD and is an important contribution of India to the world of science.
12. Seamless Metal Globe
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Considered one of the most remarkable feats in metallurgy, the first seamless celestial globe was made in Kashmir by Ali Kashmiri ibn Luqman in the reign of the Emperor Akbar. In a major feat in metallurgy, Mughal metallurgists pioneered the method of lost-wax casting to make twenty other globe masterpieces in the reign of the Mughal Empire.Before these globes were rediscovered in the 1980s, modern metallurgists believed that it was technically impossible to produce metal globes without any seams, even with modern technology.
13. Plastic Surgery
Written by Sushruta in 6th Century BC, Sushruta Samhita is considered to be one of the most comprehensive textbooks on ancient surgery. The text mentions various illnesses, plants, preparations and cures along with complex techniques of plastic surgery. The Sushruta Samhita ’s most well-known contribution to plastic surgery is the reconstruction of the nose, known also as rhinoplasty.
14. Cataract Surgery
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The first cataract surgery is said to have been performed by the ancient Indian physician Sushruta, way back in 6th century BCE. To remove the cataract from the eyes, he used a curved needle, Jabamukhi Salaka, to loosen the lens and push the cataract out of the field of vision. The eye would then be bandaged for a few days till it healed completely. Sushruta’s surgical works were later translated to Arabic language and through the Arabs, his works were introduced to the West.
Long before the birth of Hippocrates, Charaka authored a foundational text, Charakasamhita, on the ancient science of Ayurveda. Referred to as the Father of Indian Medicine, Charaka was was the first physician to present the concept of digestion, metabolism and immunity in his book. Charaka’s ancient manual on preventive medicine remained a standard work on the subject for two millennia and was translated into many foreign languages, including Arabic and Latin.
16. Iron-Cased Rockets
The first iron-cased rockets were developed in the 1780s by Tipu Sultan of Mysore who successfully used these rockets against the larger forces of the British East India Company during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. He crafted long iron tubes, filled them with gunpowder and fastened them to bamboo poles to create the predecessor of the modern rocket. With a range of about 2 km, these rockets were the best in the world at that time and caused as much fear and confusion as damage. Due to them, the British suffered one of their worst ever defeats in India at the hands of Tipu.
Also Read: Modern India Can Learn a Lot from These 20 Traditional Water Conservation Systems
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A lover of all things creative and happy, Sanchari is a biotech engineer who fell in love with writing and decided to make it her profession. She is also a die-hard foodie, a pet-crazy human, a passionate history buff and an ardent lover of books. When she is not busy at The Better India, she can usually be found reading, laughing at silly cat videos and binge-watching TV seasons.
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More From: History
While working with NCSM, a science communication organization, I thought to explore information about Indian women in Science and Technology on this International Women’s Day. Suddenly some of the names like Dr. Indira Hinduja, Kiran Majumdar Shaw and Kalpana Chawla flashed in my mind but I was willing to have some more names. I got information that a book named ‘Vidushi’: The Indian Women in Science & Technology was published by NCSM two years back. I went through the book and found it interesting and a good compilation about the Indian women in the field of Science & Technology. I also came to know about ‘Lilavati’s Daughter: The Women Scientists of India’ published by Indian Academy of Science but didn’t get a chance to go through it. I also searched on google, but found limited information on the topic. I am not sure if they are underrepresented in the field. I was also interested in the names in ancient times and pre-independence and I got some names. Here are they-
Leelavati: Leelavati was the daughter of great Mathematician Bhaskaracharya. It is said that Bharskaracharya wrote a book in her name to console her when her marriage got cancelled. She is also said to be a gifted mathematician and astrologer.
Kadambini (Basu) Ganguly: (18 July 1861 – 3 October 1923) She was not only the first female graduates of the British Empire but she was also the first female physicians of South Asia to be trained in western medicine. She studied medicine at the Calcutta Medical College, Calcutta and graduated in 1886.
Anandi Gopal Joshi: (March 31, 1865 – February 26, 1887) In the year 1886 another women from India also obtained a degree in Western medicine but she graduated from Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia, USA and thus became first Indian to study medicine from abroad.
Anna Mani: (23 August 1918 – 16 August 2001) former Deputy Director General of the Indian Meteorological Department was an Indian physicist and meteorologist.She made significant contributions in the field of meteorological instrumentation. She studied meteorological instruments at Imperial College London and after returning to India in 1948, she joined the Meteorological department in Pune. She conducted research and published numerous papers on solar radiation, ozone and wind energy measurements. She authored two books, The Handbook for Solar Radiation data for India in 1980 and Solar Radiation over India in 1981.She won the K.R. Ramanathan Medal in 1987.
- Anna Mani
Rajeswari Chatterjee: She is the first Woman Scientist to pioneer the Field of Microwave Engineering and Antennae Engineering in India. She took and MS degree in Electrical Engineering from Michigan University, USA in 1949. Around 60 years ago, she was the only woman on the faculty in the Indian Institute of Science. She retired as Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Electro-Communication Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Banglore.
Some other women who pursued her career in Science and carved a niche for themselves were Dr. Jamini Sen, Emilie de Costa, Dr. Hilda Mary Lazarus, Ila Ghose.
Indian women who are well known for their work in the field of Science and Technology and worked in modern India are mentioned below:
Dr. Indira Hinduja: She is the first Indian women who delivered a test tube baby on August 6, 1986. She has also pioneered the Gamete Intra Fallopian Transfer (GIFT) technique resulting in the birth of India’s first GIFT baby on 4 January 1988. Previously She is an Indian gynecologist; obstetrician and infertility specialist based in Mumbai and are also credited for developing an oocyte donation technique for menopausal and premature ovarian failure patients, giving the country’s first baby out of this technique on 24 January 1991.
Dr. Indira Hinduja
Kiran Mazumdar Shaw: (born 23 March 1953) She is the Chairman & Managing Director, Biocon Limited a biotechnology company based at Bangalore. She is on the Forbes list of the world’s 100 most powerful women and in business list on top 50 women released by the Financial Times’. In the year 1978, she started Biocon in the garage of her rented house in Bangalore with a seed capital of Rs. 10,000. Now the net worth of the company is more than $ 900 million. Now Biocon produces drugs for cancer, diabetes and auto-immune diseases. Product pipeline includes world’s first oral insulin, currently undergoing Phase III clinical trials.
Dr. Aditi Pant: She is an oceanographer by profession and is one of the first Indian woman to visit the icy continent Antarctic. She was a part of the third Indian expedition to Antarctica in 1983-84 and washonoured with the Antarctica Award along with Sudipta Sengupta, Jaya Naithani and Kanwal Vilku for their outstanding contribution to the Indian Antarctic programme.She did her MS in Marine Sciences from the University of Hawaii and obtained doctorate from the London University in the Physiology of Marine Algae. She worked in The National Institute of Oceanography (Goa) and the National Chemical Laboratory (Pune).
Dr. Aditi Pant
Madhuri Mathur: About 40 years back she along with her engineer husband devised Summet mixer grinder. Before her venture, having a kitchen helper that could blend, chop, and mince at a touch of a button was just a dream for millions of Indian women. It was her strenuous efforts, hard work, skills, and labour that made Sumeet a household name.
Dr. Suman Sahai: She is the founder of the Gene Campaign in India. She is the voice of the millions of farmers all across the country. Her campaign is currently running in 17 states across the country. Dr Sahai is the brains and the brawn behind the patent campaign for Azadirachta indica (Neem) and Turmeric (Haldi). She believes that ‘nature’s technology can meet the needs of humanity’. Her name figures in the list of successful women pioneers in India because of her single-minded dedication to her cause, which made the Indian government sit up and take notice of the actual problems faced by Indian farmers.
- Suman Sahai
Kalpana Chawla: (March 17, 1962– February 1, 2003) She was the first Indian-American astronaut and first Indian woman in space. She first flew on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997 as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator. The NASA chief called her a “Terrific astronaut”. On February 1, 2003, the U.S. space shuttle Columbia with a seven-member crew that included Chawla, 41, disintegrated in flames over central Texas shortly before it was scheduled to land at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
The list contains many names and cannot be included in a single post. To have more information about these pioneering women and other women in the field, you may read the books, I mentioned in the beginning of this post. NCSM salutes all women in the field of Science and Technology on the occasion of this International Women’s Day.
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About the Author
Satyajit N. Singh is Public Relation Officer at National Council of Science Museums (NCSM) which is an organisation under Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India. He has worked as Manager Public Relations in Bihar Foundation under Dept. of Industry, Govt. of Bihar. Along with his long experience in the field of Public Relations, he is a prolific writer and writes on diversified topics ranging from development issues, diaspora, Investment, Social Issues, Science etc. He regularly writes on his blogs http://biharfoundation.blogspot.in/ and on http://bodhivriksha.wordpress.com/
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Aditi Pant, Anandi Gopal Goshi, Anna Mani, Dr. Indira Hinduja, Dr. Suman Sahai, Indian Women in Science, Kadambini Ganguli, Kalpana Chawla, Kiran Majumdar Shaw, Leelavati, Madhuri Mathur, NCSM, Rajeshwari Chatterjee