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India's Surprising Innovations: Lesser-Known Inventions That Shaped Our World

Unveiling the inventions that have not only shaped our modern world but also taken us by surprise

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21 Mar '24
7 min read


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India, often celebrated for its rich cultural heritage and ancient traditions, holds a lesser-known but equally remarkable legacy—its contributions to the world of innovation and technology. While many are familiar with India's ancient wisdom in areas such as mathematics and medicine, the extent of its influence on modern inventions may come as a surprise. From the humble button to groundbreaking technologies like fiber optics and the USB, Indian inventors have left an indelible mark on the world stage. 

Let’s uncover these Indian inventions that have shaped our modern world in ways we never imagined.

Button

This humble most item goes back to the Indus Valley Civilization. Made of shells, they were made into geometric shapes with tiny holes bored into them. Back then, they had no function and were primarily used for ornamental purposes. Eventually, people started using it to fasten clothes.

Ruler

The most ancient preserved measuring rod was discovered by German Assyriologist Eckhard Unger during excavations at Nippur. Unger asserted its use as a standard for measurement. In the pre-1500 BCE era, the Indus Valley Civilization utilized rulers made from ivory in regions like Pakistan and parts of Western India. Notably, a ruler calibrated to approximately 1/16 of an inch, equivalent to less than 2 millimetres, was unearthed during excavations at Lothal dating back to 2400 BCE. How fascinating is that!

Shampoo

The tradition of shampooing has its roots in 1500 AD, where a mixture of boiled reetha (soap berries), amla (gooseberry), hibiscus, shikakai (Acacia), and other hair-friendly herbs was created and applied to the scalp for the purpose of nourishing and cleansing the hair. The term ‘shampoo’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘champo,’ signifying ‘to massage.’

How did it end up in the West? Well, Sake Dean Mahomed, a Patna-born lad from a family of barbers, brought it along. He learned the art of champi (head massage) and crafting herbal potions back home. In the early 1800s, he set up shop in Brighton, England, offering head massages at his spa, Mahomed’s Baths. His skills were so legendary that he became the personal 'shampoo surgeon' to Kings George IV and William IV. Quite a journey from Patna to royal favour!
 

His popularity and skills earned him the moniker Dr Brighton. He even went on to publish a book called ‘Shampooing, or benefits resulting from the use of Indian Medicated Vapour Bath’.

Flush Toilets

Yep, another Harappa invention. In ancient Indian civilizations such as Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, early toilet systems were a sophisticated affair, with flush toilets connected to intricate sewage systems. 

Around 2500 BC, during the Harappan civilization in India, specifically at the site of Lothal near Ahmedabad, advanced water-borne toilets were a common feature in every household. These toilets were connected to well-designed drains covered with burnt clay bricks, showcasing a sophisticated form of sanitary engineering. 

This ingenious approach to sanitation showcased their advanced understanding of urban planning and engineering. Unfortunately, with the decline of the Indus Valley civilization, the practice of advanced sanitary engineering faded in India. Consequently, toilets regressed to primitive forms, and open defecation became widespread.

Radio 

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the unsung hero of wireless communication, presented the first public demonstration of radio waves for communication.  His brainchild, the Mercury Coherer, played a crucial role in Guglielmo Marconi's development of a functional two-way radio. Despite Marconi receiving widespread acclaim, Bose remained in the shadows, mainly due to his aversion to patents. It took more than a century for Sir Bose to receive the posthumous recognition he deserved for his groundbreaking work.

Jagadish Chandra Bose, the unsung hero of wireless communication,

Cure for Leprosy

India's ancient texts emerge as treasure troves of medical wisdom. In the hallowed pages of the Sushruta Samhita, a textbook on ancient surgery, dating back to the 6th century BCE, lies the earliest mention of leprosy—a revelation documented by Kearns and Nash in the Encyclopædia Britannica 2008. 

Preceding this pivotal milestone, the Atharva-Veda quietly imparted the wisdom of healing, laying the groundwork for our comprehension of afflictions such as leprosy and lithiasis, according to The Oxford Illustrated Companion to Medicine.

Cataract Surgery

The credit here again goes to Sushruta, the ancient Indian surgeon, who pioneered a surgical technique in the 3rd century CE. Using a curved needle, he delicately loosened the lens before gently pushing the cataract to the rear of the eye. Following the procedure, warm butter was applied to soothe the eyes, and bandages were employed to aid in healing. 

This innovative approach eventually spread from India to China, attracting the attention of Greek scientists who journeyed to India to both undergo the procedure and gain insights into its intricacies. 

Despite the limitations of diagnostic tools available during his time, Sushruta demonstrated remarkable skill in managing various eye conditions, thereby showcasing the effectiveness of his techniques.

USB 

This came off as a pleasant surprise as I never expected USB  (Universal Serial Bus) to be an Indian invention. This portable storage was the innovation of  Indian-American computer architect Ajay V. Bhatt. 

Its back story is a testament to the that famous saying, necessity is the mother of invention. In 1992, Intel employee and father Ajay Bhatt faced frustrations printing documents for his child. His wife contacted him at work, seeking guidance on printing school materials. This experience made him wonder: why multiple devices couldn't be connected to the same computer port.

Thus in 1995, he developed the USB standard with his team from seven companies, Compaq, DEC, IBM, Intel, Nortel, Microsoft, and NEC.

Pentium chip

Vinod Dham, an Indian-American inventor and entrepreneur, transformed the computing landscape through his groundbreaking invention of the Pentium Micro-Processor. Hailed as the ‘Father of the Pentium Chip,’ he also co-invented Intel's pioneering Flash memory technology (ETOX). Furthermore, his pivotal role in launching the K6 processor, famously dubbed the 'Pentium killer' at AMD Co., cemented his legacy as a visionary in the realm of technology.

Diamond mining 

Until the discovery of mines in Brazil in the 18th century, India stood as the exclusive source of diamonds, being the first to recognize and mine these precious stones. For centuries, India held the sole distinction of being the primary supplier of diamonds. The earliest documented reference to diamonds dates back to a Sanskrit manuscript from 320-296 BC. 

 Cotton 

India dominated the global cotton textile industry for about 3,000 years, from 1500 B.C. to 1500 AD as ancient Indians then figured out ways to convert cotton balls into threads and finally fabric. Cotton was prized as a valuable commodity in ancient barter economies, serving as a versatile medium of exchange. 

During the Middle Ages, Indian textiles adorned markets in Eastern and European regions, essentially dressing the world. However, this legacy was altered as imperial powers established cotton mills in the modern era.

Decimal System

Wikipedia will tell you ‘The Persian mathematician Jamshid al-Kashi used, and claimed to have discovered, decimal fractions in the 15th century.’ But the decimal system was invented by Hindu mathematicians Aryabhata, Brahmagupta, Bhaskara II, and Varāhamihira in India between the first and sixth centuries AD.

In fact in the mathematical treatise Ganita, Aryabhata not only assigns names to the initial ten decimal places but also unveils ingenious algorithms for extracting square and cubic roots, all within the framework of the decimal number system. The modern decimal number system traces its origins back to Indian mathematics. 

Fibre Optics 

Another Indian invention we didn’t see coming. Indian American physicist Dr Narinder Singh Kapany, hailed as the 'Father of Fiber Optics,'  conceived and crafted a glass wire with the remarkable ability to transmit light, which he aptly termed fibre optics in 1953. 

Narinder Singh Kapany, father of Fiber Optics

In the realm of telecommunications, fibre optic technology has largely supplanted copper wire in long-distance telephone lines, while also serving as the preferred method for connecting computers within local area networks. In short, it laid the groundwork for high-speed data communication in the Information Age. 

 

Category : History


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Written by Madhuwanti Saha

Writer, Journalist , Photographer