Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 54:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 54.

Today, we learn how telegraphy came to India. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1854 the British in India completed an 800-mile telegraph line between Calcutta and Agra. This system was the brainchild of a visionary inventor named William O'Shaughnessy, and it did much to secure England's grip on India.

O'Shaughnessy had gone to India 21 years earlier, in 1833, as an assistant surgeon with the East India Company. There he began to experiment with electricity. He invented an electric motor and a silver chloride battery. Then, in 1839, he set up a 13½-mile-long demonstration telegraph system near Calcutta.

That was just two years after Samuel F.B. Morse had built his demonstration system in the United States, but O'Shaughnessy wasn't aware of Morse's work. His telegraph used a different code, and the message was transmitted by imposing a series of very small electric shocks on the operator. He also came up with another unique invention -- he used a 2½-mile stretch of the Hooghly River, in place of wire, to complete the circuit.

Historian Mel Gorman tells us that it took eleven years for O'Shaughnessy to gain support to put in a regular system. By 1851 he had a 27-mile line in service near Calcutta, and the first trans-India line was running three years later.

O'Shaughnessy's construction of the India telegraph system was an amazing triumph over technical and bureaucratic problems. By now he knew about the new English and American telegraph systems, and he had to invent his own equipment to avoid patents, to reduce costs, and to accomodate local problems. He invented his own signal transmitter, his own methods for stringing lines, and so forth. It was a good system, and in 1854 it helped the British in the Crimean War. Three years later it was decisive in putting down the Sepoy mutiny. A captured mutineer, being led to the gallows, pointed to a telegraph line and bravely cried, "There is the accursed string that strangles us!"

One may question 19th-century British colonialism; but we can only admire O'Shaughnessy. He shows us what one person can do when he really trusts his own creative ability and then looks squarely at a real problem.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gorman, M., Sir William O'Shaughnessy, Lord Dalhousie, and the Establishment of the Telegraph System in India. Technology and Culture, Vol. 12, No. 4, October 1971, pp. 581-601.

This episode has been redone in a greatly revised Episode 1380.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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