“It is said, with prefect truth as regards many matters, that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, but there is no doubt in my mind that even a little knowledge – provided it be sound knowledge – of allied sciences is of the very greatest value to engineers of all sorts.”
- John Willoughby Meares
Lectureson Electrical Engineering with particular reference to conditions in Bengal
The following is a preview of a narrative I am currently writing – the story of a man who gave India its first public electricity supply scheme, leading to the urbanization of one of the world’s biggest economies.
The Story of anEmpire, a Technology, a Man, and Urbanization
The early 1850s witnessed the introduction of the telegraph and the railways in India, harbingers of progress and results of the scientific revolution in eighteenth century Europe. The British, at the forefront of industrial progress and beneficiaries of over two hundred years of scientific enlightenment, were remarkable in harnessing their scientific knowledge to practical needs.
Railways enthusiasts hailed that the railways would transform India and, as in Britain, provide economic growth. They were right. The railways did bring economic growth to India. The railways not only proved good for businesses and transportation of goods, it also brought caste barriers down. However, it would take a little more than 40 years before the railways lead to another development in India - a phenomenon that has transformed economies around theworld – electricity supply.
By the 1890s, India’s railways had grown significantly, crisscrossing the country and connecting its important business hubs. Construction and repair of railway lines was however restricted to daylight. The Bengal-Nagpur Railway sought to connect the two biggest business hubs of India – Calcutta and Bombay – by constructing a bridge over Roopnarain river at Kolaghat, Bengal. The significance of the railway line meant it had to be completed swiftly. The only way the deadline could be met was by working even at night, under artificial lighting.
Crompton&Co. were asked to depute an engineer to install a hydroelectric plant in Darjeeling, to light the works at the Roopnarain bridge. John Willoughby Meares was just 25 and working as an inspector of new electrical installations at Hove Electric Lighting Company when he signed a three-year contract with Kilburn & Co. – agents of Crompton & Co.
The story, when complete, would be a glimpse into the life and career of a man who alone, without prior experience or the help of skilled technicians and engineers, managed laborers from nearby villages and installed the small hydroelectric plant near Darjeeling. The 40,000 cubic feet capacity reservoir had to be build for only one‑fifth of its actual cost. But cost-saving wasn’t the only concern. Meares and his team of unskilled laborers had to also overcome plenty of life-threatening problems at site – local snakes, plague, leprosy, smallpox, typhoid, paratyphoid, heat apoplexy and food poisoning.
Somewhere in India, at this very moment, a farmer in a village tends to his crops, a family moves from a village to a city, a child in the city watches TV, while an urban employee puts in another late night at work. With these local, isolated acts, we are all keeping an economy on its toes and a country moving. We have entered a new era: a country with more than 2 billion inhabitants, more than half of which live in urban areas. The need for energy sources has never been as critical.
When John Willoughby Meares first came to India in 1896, Calcutta was the biggest city in India and the second city of the British Empire. Less than a century later, urban centers have increased, both in number and in size. No other development during this period – independence from colonial rule, the formation of the world’s largest democracy, the Internet, IT and outsourcing – has had as formative an impact as public electricity supply.
India and Britain have a long history of fruitful transfer of knowledge and technology, but it is indeed fortunate to tell a story of such work during the period of the greatest hostility between an Empire and its crown jewel, in the years of India’s heightened struggle for independence.
The scale, success and prospects of India’s hydroelectric development gives some sense of how important Meares was to a country not his own. Yet today, Meares is barely a little more than a footnote in popular accounts of India’surbanization.