Jagadish Chandra Bose: The Man Who Almost Invented the Radio

Jagadish Chandra Bose was a pioneer in early radio technology and also made other important contributions to our understanding of nature.
Christopher McFadden

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose might not be a household name, but he really should be. Born in India during the period of British rule, he would become one of the most prominent Indian scientists of all time.

A pioneer in plant physiology, radio technology, and various other scientific fields, Bose would make many significant contributions to our modern understanding of the natural world. He would also help, in part, to inspire the formation of modern India.

Read on to find out more about this incredible man. 


Who is Jagadish Chandra bose?

Jagadish Chandra Bose was a physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist, early science fiction author, and a connoisseur of fine arts. He is best known for his development of highly sensitive instruments for the detection of small responses by living organisms to external stimuli. 

These instruments enabled him to anticipate the parallel between animal and plant tissues noted by later biologists. 

Bose was born on 30th November 1858 in Bengal, India (now part of Bangladesh). Interestingly, 1858 was the same year in which India, which had been administered by the East India Company since 1757, came directly under Crown rule.

He is most famously known for his contribution to natural sciences and has been named by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers as one of the fathers of radio science, alongside scientists such as Tesla, Marconi, and Popov. He is also said to be the first Indian biophysicist and even the first Indian modern scientist. In fact, his work on radio and wireless communication arguably makes him the father of modern radio. 

Jagadish Chandra Bose teacher
Source: Shaunak Basu/Twitter

Jagadish Chandra Bose's early days

Bose's father, Bhagawan Chandra Bose, was a civil servant and held prestigious positions of responsibility in the then-Bengal Presidency, a subdivision of the British Empire, and was active in Hindu reform movements. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose could have had a very comfortable upbringing, with negligible contact with the problems that the rest of the country was facing in those times, under the colonial rule of the British.

However, his father chose to have him start his education at a vernacular school, as opposed to an expensive English-language school, where he would get a chance to learn his own language (Bangla) and to know and understand a wide variety of people. He was raised in a home committed to Indian traditions and culture. The impact of this early-life experience and contact with a range of different people stayed with Bose throughout his life and was clear in his attitude toward his work and life.

Speaking at the Bikrampur Conference in 1915, Bose said:

“At that time, sending children to English schools was an aristocratic status symbol. In the vernacular school, to which I was sent, the son of the Muslim attendant of my father sat on my right side, and the son of a fisherman sat on my left. They were my playmates. I listened spellbound to their stories of birds, animals, and aquatic creatures. Perhaps these stories created in my mind a keen interest in investigating the workings of Nature. When I returned home from school accompanied by my school fellows, my mother welcomed and fed all of us without discrimination. Although she was an orthodox old-fashioned lady, she never considered herself guilty of impiety by treating these ‘untouchables’ as her own children. It was because of my childhood friendship with them that I could never feel that there were ‘creatures’ who might be labeled 'low-caste'. I never realized that there existed a 'problem' common to the two communities, Hindus and Muslims.”

At the age of 11, Bose joined the Hare School, then the St. Xavier's School at Kolkata (then known as Calcutta), and finally he went on to St. Xavier's College in Kolkata. These institutions continue to be some of the most prestigious places to receive an education in India. He then received a bachelor's degree from the University of Calcutta in 1879. It was at St. Xavier's College that, Bose met Jesuit Father Eugene Lafont, who played a significant role in developing his interest in the natural sciences.

chandra bose photo
Source: Debashis Ghanti/Twitter

From here, the course of his life changed direction.

First, his wish of following his father's footsteps and going to England to compete for a place in the Indian Civil Services was overruled by his father, who had more scholarly plans for his son.

Instead, Bose was sent to England to study Medicine at the University of London. However, his repeated illness kept him from completing his medical studies. He instead attended Christ's College, Cambridge and obtained a B.A. degree in Natural Sciences and a BSc from University College London in 1884, followed by a DSc from University College London in 1896.

Bose meets Eugène Lafont

Eugène Lafont was a Belgian priest, who became a missionary in India, where he went on to become a scientist, and also founded the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science to increase the awareness of and interest in science. 

Lafont was a research scholar and inventor, but most of all, an educator. He served in the Senate of the University of Calcutta for many years, and his Association served as the center of research for several noted scientists, including Nobel Laureate Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (CV Raman), and his protégé of sorts, Sir Kariamanickam Srinivasa Krishnan (KS Krishnan).

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Lafont inspired in Bose a great interest in physics and natural sciences. Bose started out as his student but quickly grew to become friends with him.

Bose returns to India

Bose returned to India and took up a job as an Assistant Professor of Physics at Presidency College, the oldest college in Calcutta. 

While teaching younger scientists, Bose also started original research here in the area of microwaves, carrying out experiments involving refraction, diffraction, and polarization. 

In 1895, just one year after starting his research, Bose made the first public demonstration of radio waves in the Kolkata town hall, two years before Marconi’s first public demonstrations of wireless telegraphy in England. 

This demonstration also used microwave signals instead of the low and medium frequency waves that Marconi and others were working with. Bose recognized that the shorter wavelengths would make it easier to explore the properties of radio waves that were similar to light, like reflection, refraction, and polarization. To aid in his studies, he invented almost all the basic components of microwave systems.

Some of his most important work in radio had to do with the detection of electromagnetic waves. Early radio pioneers used a device called a coherer to detect the signal. These early coherers consisted of fine metal particles contained in a tube between metal conductors. Electrical energy would cause the particles to clump together and become conductive.

Unfortunately, the filings stayed stuck together and had to be reset before they could detect the next signal. Bose invented an improvement that used a pool of mercury in a small metal cup. A film of insulating oil covered the mercury, and an iron disc penetrated the oil. RF energy would break down the insulating oil and conduct the signal between the iron and the mercury.

This improved coherer design, which Bose never patented, was used in Marconi’s transatlantic wireless receiver two years later. 

Bose also suggested the existence of electromagnetic radiation emanating from the Sun, which was finally confirmed in 1944.

During the same period, he married Abala Bose, a renowned feminist and social worker, spared time to write science fiction, and became intrigued by plants and their response phenomena. He demonstrated that vegetable tissues produce electric responses under the effect of stimuli, just like in animals.

How Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose proved that plants are alive

Thanks to his work on radio waves, Boss began to think about the larger world of physics. He had been fascinated by the reactions seen in the mimosa (the touch-me-not plant, not the cocktail!), which, when touched or irritated, reacts by shriveling up of its leaves.

His curiosity about this little-understood mechanism compelled him to study the reactions of plans to stimuli. Through his work, he was able to establish the similarities between plants and animals with respect to response to external stimuli.

Bose's flagship contribution in this area was the invention of the machine called the "crescograph", which was a device for measuring growth in plants. There are two things in this instrument that help measure plant growth and development - a smoked glass plate and a number of clockwise gears.

The plate is marked at regular distance intervals, and the clockwise gears are used to measure how growth is influenced, as well as how the plant moves under different conditions. The plate catches the reflection of the plant and is marked according to the movement of the plant. For measurement, the plant is dipped in bromide.

Jagadish Chandra Bose Crescograph
The "crescograph". Source: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons

The device can take measurements of the order of 1/100,000th of an inch! Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose's first experiments were conducted with a leaf, a carrot, and a turnip plucked from his own garden.

On the 10th of May 1901, the who's who of the scientific community all gathered at the central hall of the Royal Society in London. Everyone wanted to know how Bose would demonstrate that plants have "feelings" similar to other living beings (in the physical rather than emotional sense, obviously).

Bose chose a plant whose roots were cautiously dipped up to the stems in a vessel filled with bromide solution. He plugged in the "crescograph" with the plant and a lighted spot on a screen showing the movements of the plant. The spot began to move in a pendulum-like motion with the "pulse" of the plant. As the bromide began to act, within minutes, the spot began to vibrate violently and finally came to a stop, akin to an animal fighting poison.

The event was greeted with much appreciation however, some physiologists were not content, and considered Bose an outsider. They harshly knocked the experiment but Bose did not give up and was quite confident about his findings.

Using the "crescograph", he further researched the response of the plants to other stimuli such as fertilizers, light rays, and wireless waves. The instrument received widespread acclaim, particularly from the Path Congress of Science in 1900. Many physiologists also corroborated his findings, later on, using more advanced instruments.

Bose himself wrote: “All around us, the plants are communicating. We just don’t notice it.” His research was also instrumental in helping humans understand how to better care for plants, and also paved the way for enhanced research into crop cultivation and agricultural best practices.

Chandra Bose inventions
Bose helped develop an improver "Coherer" -- a device to demonstrate various aspects of radio waves. Source: History Under Your Feet/Twitter

He was also one of the first scientists to study the action of microwaves in plant tissues and the changes in the plant cell membrane potential, proving through this study that plants are sensitive to pain and affection.

To spread the knowledge from his learnings to the world, Bose described his experiments and their results in his 1902 publication, ”Responses in the Living and Non-Living”. Within the book, he described how plants appear to feel pleasure and pain.

Under the effect of stimuli like pleasant and gentle music, the speed of growth of plants increased and decreased when exposed to harsh or loud music. Similarly, plants that were spoken to, as one would with babies and pets, would be "happier" than others.

Although some of these conclusions later proved incorrect, it is now agreed that Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose had made very significant contributions to the fields of chronobiology and circadian rhythms, long before these terms were even coined.

Bose's incredible work on radio technology

Working in a difficult socio-political environment and in the scarcity of equipment and funding, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose continued to do pioneering work in several fields. To this end, he became the first person in the world to use semiconductor junctions for detecting radio signals.

Bose in his lab
Source: Bose Institute

Yet, rather than trying to convert his inventions into commercial gains, he chose to make his inventions public, in the same way as open-source software works today, to enable anyone else to use and build on his research. Bose used to be quite strong against patenting his inventions, and barely ever expressed interest in commercial uses of his research, encouraging others to use his work.

He had resolved not to seek any personal advantage from his inventions and pursued science not only for itself but for its application to the benefit of mankind. Yet, giving in to peer pressure, he did apply for the patent for the first solid-state diode to receive electromagnetic waves.

He also carried out extensive studies on diffraction, refraction, and polarization, effectively inventing wireless telegraphy. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose's research on radio waves led to him being able to create waves with very short wavelengths, all the way down to 5 mm. During the same time frame, Marconi was working on commercializing his findings in radio waves and trying to market it to the British Postal Service, while Bose continued his research in the pursuit of scientific interest.

To his credit, Marconi did eventually acknowledge the importance of Bose’s work in his writing. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose also developed equipment for transmitting, generating, and receiving radio waves. He experimented with galena to prepare an early type of semiconductor diode that can be used as an electromagnetic wave detector.

To satiate his myriad curiosities, he delved deep into multiple fields during his lifetime. He switched from the study of physics to the study of metals and afterward to plants. Another one of his inventions was an extremely sensitive coherer, a device to detect radio waves. He found that using the device over a long period of time, without any breaks, led to a loss in its sensitivity. This loss, however, could be reversed by leaving the "Coherer" unused for some time.

bose google doodle
Source: Google Doodle

Bose also developed a device to demonstrate the effect of electromagnetic waves on non-living and living matter.

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose authored two illustrious books: "Response in the Living and Non-living" (1902) and "The Nervous Mechanism of Plants" (1926).

The honors which the great Indian scientist received include Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire in 1903, Knighthood in 1917, Member of the Vienna Academy of Sciences in 1928, Member of Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters in 1929, Founding Fellow of the National Institute of Sciences of India (now renamed as the Indian National Science Academy), Companion of the Order of the Star of India in 1912, Fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, President of the 14th session of the Indian Science Congress in 1927, Member of the League of Nations' Committee for Intellectual Cooperation, etc.

Bose becomes an Indian national hero, sort of

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose's entire lifetime of 78 years took place during the British rule in India, a period that gave rise to prominent Indian reformers such as Gandhi. By comparison, Bose is a lesser-known legend, albeit equally as important for the development of post-British India.

Bose was much more than all his accolades; he was a source of inspiration to a nation otherwise struggling for independence and fresh identity, in a difficult economic and political climate. The Better India writes about his impact on his close friend and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was a vocal supporter of Bose's research. In his poem for him, published in Kalpana, Tagore was magnanimous in his praise:

“From the Temple of Science in the West,

far across the Indus, oh, my friend,

you have brought the garland of victory,

decorated the humbled head of the poor Mother…

Today, the mother has sent blessings in words of tears,

of this unknown poet.

Amidst the great Scholars of the West, brother,

these words will reach only your ears.”

As Tagore’s words portray, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was not just a scientist, he was a symbol of national pride. Bose too had always acknowledged his responsibilities as a scientist to revive the national pride of his country. In a letter to Tagore, he wrote:

“I am alive with the life force of the mother Earth, I have prospered with the help of the love of my countrymen. For ages, the sacrificial fire of India’s enlightenment has been kept burning, millions of Indians are protecting it with their lives, a small spark of which has reached this country through me.”

bose institute
Bose Institute circa 1920. Source: Patrick Geddes/Wikimedia Commons

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose and his undying legacy

For a country going through an identity crisis, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was a source of immense national pride and hope. Prior to his death in 1937, he founded the Bose Institute at Calcutta, devoted primarily to the study of plants.

He was greatly helped in his ambitious and noble endeavor, both financially and otherwise, by Tagore. Today, this Institute also carries research on various other fields.

In their own words: 

"The Institute was set up with the purpose of investigating fully, 'the many and ever opening problems of the nascent science which includes both life and non-life'. Bose's early career included many marvelously inventive and pioneering experiments on electromagnetism which, in JJ Thomson's words, marked, 'the dawn of the revival in India, of interest in researches in the Physical Sciences', and on the commonality of the response of plants and inorganic materials to electric and mechanical stimuli."

To recognize his achievements in the field of wireless telecommunications, among other fields, an impact crater on the far side of the Moon is named after Bose. The Bose Crater has a reported diameter of 56 miles (91 km). Its outer rim has become worn and the edges rounded by impacts, although the shape of the site has been well-preserved.

Bose bust
Source: AshLin/Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, one tribute that is often mistakenly attributed to him is the naming of Bose Corporation, an American firm that designs and sells audio equipment. Bose Corp. was actually named after its founder Amar Bose, an engineer, academic, and entrepreneur. While he shares his family name with Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the two aren't related.

Thanks to his pioneering work, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose's legacy is certain to endure. Several scientists have repeated his work on plants using more sophisticated equipment and methods. At the same time, scientists are also trying to unravel the mystery of the molecular-level changes that happen within plants which give rise to the different reactions to different stimuli, such as light, touch, and sound.

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose will continue to hold a unique place in the history of modern science.

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