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The ‘Indian Edison’ who had 200 inventions and 40 patents to his credit

A six year old boy was observing a clock. At that age children can not even tell time or know how a clock works. But this kid’s curiosity led him to examine the workings of the clock, that was situated in a statue, which caused the statue’s eyes to move in harmony with the oscillation of clock’s pendulum.

The boy’s curiosity led him to become self taught inventor, who has more than 200 invention credits to his name and 40 among which are patented.

Shankar Abaji Bhisey is his name. He was Born in Kayastha prabhu family in Bombay, on 29th April 1867.

under British colonial rule, barely any institutional support was offered to the potential scientists and inventors like Bhisey. It was his own determination and hard work, which took him from the crowded streets of Bombay (Mumbai) to international acclaim.

While growing up in Bombay, Bhisey showed a real aptitude for the sciences, constructing a ‘small apparatus at home which made coal gas’ at the age of just 14.

As a teenager, he would spend days reading various issues of the reputed Scientific American magazine, and in later years he always said he owes his success to this magazine which enabled him to learn so many things.

He had understood that science is a collaborative subject and he started a club in Bombay.

He began designing gadgets and machines like tamper-proof bottles, electrical bicycle contraptions, a station indicator for Bombay’s suburban railway system when he was just in his 20’s.

Bhisey wrote columns in the Marathi science magazine called Vividh Kala Prakash, through which he communicated the importance of science to ordinary people.

However publicity for his works came in the late 1980s. he won a competition organised by ‘Inventors’ Review and Scientific Record,’ a British publication, by developing the design for a machine that would weigh groceries.

In this competition he defeated a whole host of British contestants. the local administration took interest in his work and financed his trip to London, where he sought to attract investors for his inventions.

Before leaving, he told his friends that he would not come back to Bombay unless he made it, or ran out of money. Just before his trip to London, he also came into contact with the then secretary of the Indian National Congress in Bombay and businessman Dinsha Wacha, whose letter of introduction got Bhisey into contact with Dadabhai Naoroji, a businessman in London and one of the early heroes of the Indian national movement.

Along with Wacha’s recommendation, Naoroji also witnessed Bhisey’s ingenuity —this young man had a growing list of international patents already under his belt.

Dadabhai Naoroji and Bhisey soon ventured into a business agreement, whereby Naoroji agreed to invest in Bhisey’s work.

Besides offering him financial support, the economist and businessman also gave him reading material about the Indian nationalist movement. Following the agreement, Bhisey set out to work from a workshop in north London.

What we call gadgets to simplify our daily chores, Bhisey had long list of such inventions back then.

He developed new and interesting models for a wide range of items—from kitchen gadgets, automatic toilet flushers, a telephone etc.. But, it was his work in the printing industry that caught the attention of the world.

In a Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) publication, JB Kulkarni writes,

“He invented one such machine cast  where thirty-two different metal types were  used to print newspapers and books simultaneously. However, people did not believe his claims, and he was challenged by engineers of the Caston Type Foundry, a leading type-casting firm in London. Bhise Accepted the challenge, set up his own foundry, the Bhiso-Type Ltd, with financial assistance from London and produced a machine in 1908. This silenced his critics as well as the English engineers. The machine could automatically cast and assemble 1200 different types every minute,”.

However, things began to fall apart for Bhisey in London, once Naoroji asked him to seek a bigger investor, helped him to find English businessman Henry Hyndman, considered by many as the “father of British socialism” and a critic of British colonialism.

Unfortunately, Hyndman’s promise to raise 15,000 pounds for the Bhi so type was not fulfilled, and while waiting this funding, Bhisey rejected an offer from the Linotype Company, a printing industry giant. By 1907, Hyndman’s funding plans fell apart, and the following year Naorji’s resources had run out. He had no choice but to leave London in December 1908.

But his early achievements had caught the eye of the Indian National Congress, and on the invitation of freedom fighter Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bhisey attended its annual convention in 1908 as the Guest of Honour in Madras. Gokhale  was deeply impressed by Bhisey’s typecaster and introduced him to Ratan J Tata, and another agreement with the Indian company was done for greater funding. This time he took his inventions to America. His stint in America also introduced him to Lala Lajpat Rai, a doyen of the Indian freedom struggle, who inspired him to expand his scientific pursuits.

Unable to successfully market the Bhisotype, Towards his final years, Bhise seemingly lost track of science and began dwelling in the occult with the invention of a “spirit typewriter,” which was basically another version of the Ouija board.

However, the Scientific American, which he cherished as a child, wrote about him,

“While India has achieved brilliant success in science, literature and the arts, it had given little to the world in the way of invention. Whatever may have been the opinion of the world, the work of Mr Bhise should do much to dispel the illusion.”

He passed away on 7 April 1935, in New York at the age of 68.

he was a true believer of freedom struggle, attended anti-colonial demonstrations alongside Naoroji in London, supported, and tried to spread Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas during his time in New York.

Sad part of his life story is, the inventor who was unstoppable, slipped into obscurity, and began practicing occult and tried to be psychic. But that doesn’t make the fact go away, the fact being he was one of the greatest inventor born in India. Now there has been attempt to revive his scientific legacy. Let’s salute his scientific spirit and zeel of invention.

Dr Sindhu Prashanth

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