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Did you know that India in the 18th Century was exporting its technology to England?

Did You Know?
By D.P. Agrawal

Question: Did you know that India in the 18th Century was exporting its technology to England?

The answer to this query is based on the book by the well known Gandhian Dharampal (see source below below).

India then had industry, the famous extensive cotton cloth industry (spinning, weaving, dyeing, finishing, etc.) producing cloth for ordinary wear, as well as for exquisite purposes. Further, there were the great building industries run by high professionals like experts in Vastu-sastra, also those who constructed tanks and irrigation channels and maintained them, and people who looked after the roads and rivers. There were the great cartiers like the Banjaras, the transporters who were said at times to have travelled on the roads in caravans of 10,000 carts. Then there were the boats and ships in the rivers and on the seas, and those who built them, and those who sailed them in the rivers and seas around India, and to places in South East Asia and to East and South Africa.

Most parts of India produced very fine iron and steel from very early times. Around 1700-1800 it was perhaps the best steel in the world and distant countries like the Netherlands and Britain imported it and used it for special purposes. We of course used it for our agricultural purposes, and in tool-making, and in great temples as well as in great iron pillars, like the one in Delhi. Our annual potential of iron and steel production, around 1800, is estimated at 2,00,000 tons. The furnaces which manufactured such iron and steel were found in practically all regions of India, and were made by the iron-smelters themselves, used ores available locally, and charcoal made from specific trees, and the furnaces could be carted from place to place.

There were scores of large and small industrial and other manufacturing enterprises even till A.D. 1800 and in many areas till much later. Around 1770 it was found that ice was manufactured from water by a man-made process in the Allahabad region. This was wholly unknown in Britain, and perhaps in Europe too, and so details of the process were conveyed to the British Royal Society in London by the British commander-in- chief of the Bengal army. The details were tested and analysed in Edinburgh by one Prof. Black, probably Edinburgh was the main centre for understanding the process. Prof. Black found that the Indian process worked in his laboratory too, and the confirmation of it, in due course must have led to the founding, patenting etc. of the earlier forms of modern-day refrigeration.

Incidentally, it seems that ice was made in India from water (and perhaps by the same or similar process) in the early 7th Century A.D. in the days of the celebrated Harshavardhana of Kannauj. This is referred to in the Harsha-Charitra by the great poet Bana Bhatta

Contrary to what the British assumed, especially Mr. James Mill, the historian of British India (1817), India seems to have been well endowed in the matter of the treatment of the body, largely through Ayurveda and its regional versions, and in surgery. Indian surgeons, disciples of the ancient Susruta, did surgery for many things including the removal of the cataract of the eye in Bengal (c.1790) and in mending noses, and perhaps, limbs. The news of the process of the mending of noses reached the British Royal Society from Pune, and may be from other places also. There seems to have arisen some amazement, a sort of unbelief, but the details of the surgery were studied, and by 1810 Dr. Carpue of London was able to build up the technique of a new plastic surgery derived and based on the Indian method.

There must be many more such instances of export of knowledge, processes, and techniques, in multiple fields which came to Britain, and perhaps to some other European areas, from 18th and early 19th century India. There were the details of the practice of inoculation conveyed firstly around A.D. 1732, and later in much greater detail in 1765 to the British College of physicians by Mr. Holwell, who was also a surgeon. Similarly the practices of Indian agriculture were described to London from various areas, and some Indian tools, particularly drill ploughs, were sent to Britain to help improve the British agricultural implements, all in the later part of the 18th century.

A Dutch scholar around claimed an Indian origin of 16th-17th European furniture, and published several articles on it in the Burlington Magazine, London. As this claim got contested by a couple of British scholars the magazine found it more politic to terminate publishing the series. There must be many instances of this kind.

According to recent estimates of world-wide industrial manufactures, 73% of world manufactures were done in the Chinese and the Indian regions around 1750. Even around 1820 these two regions produced some 60% of world manufactures.


Dharampal. 1999. Despoliation and Defaming of India. Vol 1, Pp. 28-31. Other India Press, Goa.