Indian innovations that captured the world’s imagination

August 30, 2018
7 mins

Mark Twain, a premier 19 century American author whose carefree writing was famous for its satire and realism, said this about India: “So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked.”

We do agree, don’t we?

This diverse country is so much more than the slums and snake charmers it was defined by in unrealistic novels and films. Brilliant minds over the years have given India top honors in so many fields that it is hard to make a concise list of all her achievements.

We celebrate 71 years of Indian Independence from British imperialism this year. To mark this occasion, we’ve made a list of major innovations that laid the foundation of today’s free and modern world in so many known and unknown ways:

Language

Tamil, a Dravidian language, is known to be the first complete language of the world. Moreover, the origin of most of the major European languages can be traced to Sanskrit, which is also the mother of most of the Indian languages.

Prof. Dean Brown points out that “most European languages can be traced back to a root language that is also related to Sanskrit – the sacred language of the ancient Vedic religions of India. Many English words actually have Sanskrit origins. Similarly, many Vedic religious concepts can also be found in Western culture.

Mathematics

These are most important contributions in the field of math:

  • The discovery of Zero and the Decimal system in India laid the foundation for modern mathematics, arithmetic and geometry. These became the basis of medieval science, architecture and modern computer science (binary number system).
  • Brahmagupta, the great Indian mathematician and astronomer, had begun using algebraic abbreviations for unknowns by the 7th century. He employed abbreviations for multiple unknowns occurring in one complex problem. Brahmagupta also used abbreviations for square roots and cube roots.
  • In ancient times, the Indians approximated pi to be the square root of 10. Indian mathematician and astronomer Aryabhata in the 5th century gave the approximation of pi = 62832/20000 = 3.1416 (up to 4 decimal places). He did this at the age of 23.
  • With decimal place-value and a symbol for zero, the Hindu number system was the predecessor of the widely used Arabic numeral system. It was developed in the Indian subcontinent between the 1st and 6th centuries CE.
  • The practice of using a decimal mark was derived from the decimal system used in Indian mathematics.
  • The Fibonacci sequence was first described by Virahanka (c. 700 AD), Gopāla (c. 1135), and Hemachandra (c. 1150) as an outgrowth of the earlier writings on Sanskrit prosody by Pingala (c. 200 BC).

Trigonometric functions sine and versine originated in Indian astronomy. They were described in detail by Aryabhata in the late 5th century, but were likely developed earlier in the Siddhantas, astronomical treatises of the 3rd or 4th centuries.

We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.

– Albert Einstein

Medicine

Ayurveda and Siddha — originated from North India and South India, respectively, are known to be the oldest systems and are considered to be two of the most sophisticated till date. Plastic surgery was a common practice in these medical approaches, and later found expression in the Western world.

  • Kearns & Nash (2008) stated that the first mention of leprosy is described in the Indian medical treatise Sushruta Samhita (6th century BCE). However, The Oxford Illustrated Companion to Medicine holds that the mention of leprosy, as well as ritualistic cures for it, were described in the Atharva Veda (1500–1200 BCE), written before the Sushruta Samhita.
  • Cataract surgery was known to the Indian physician Sushruta (3rd century CE). In India, cataract surgery was performed with a special tool called the Jabamukhi Salaka, a curved needle used to loosen the lens and push the cataract out of the field of vision. Greek philosophers and scientists traveled to India where these surgeries were performed by physicians. The removal of cataract by surgery was also introduced into China from India.
  • Arunachalam Muruganantham is the inventor of a low-cost sanitary pad making machine and has innovated grassroots mechanisms for generating awareness about traditional unhygienic practices around menstruation in rural India.

Mining metallurgy

From crucible steel to diamond, Indian inventions did much in the field of strength materials and jewelry.

  • Diamonds were first recognized and mined in central India. It is unclear when diamonds were first mined in India although it is estimated to be at least 5,000 years ago. India remained the world’s only source of diamonds until the discovery of diamonds in Brazil in the 18th century.
  • Zinc was first smelted from zinc ore in India. Zinc mines of Zawar, near Udaipur, Rajasthan, were active during early Christian era.
  • Considered one of the most remarkable feats in metallurgy, the seamless celestial globe was invented in India between 1589 and 1590 CE. Before seamless metal globes were rediscovered in the 1980s, it was believed by modern metallurgists to be technically impossible to produce them even with modern technology.
  • Iron works were developed in India. Archaeological sites in India, in present-day Uttar Pradesh, show iron implements in the period between 1800 BCE –1200 BCE. Early iron objects found in India can be dated to 1400 BCE by employing the method of radiocarbon dating.
  • During the reign of Chandragupta II Vikramaditya (375 – 413 CE), corrosion-resistant iron was used to erect the iron pillar of Delhi, which has withstood corrosion for over 1,600 years.

Science and Technology

  • The earliest known instance of a ploughed field was found at Kalibangan.
  • Known in Asia since the third millennia BCE, Indian ink was used in India since at least the 4th century BCE.
  • In 1899, Bengali physicist Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose announced the development of an “iron-mercury-iron coherer with telephone detector” in a paper presented at the Royal Society, London.
  • The first public demonstration of microwave transmission was made by Jagadish Chandra Bose in Calcutta in 1895, two years before a similar demonstration by Marconi in England, and just a year after Oliver Lodge’s commemorative lecture on radio communication, following Hertz’s death. Bose’s revolutionary demonstration forms the foundation of the technology used in mobile telephony, radars, satellite communication, radios, television broadcast, WiFi, remote controls, and countless other applications.
  • Chandrasekhar limit and Chandrasekhar number were discovered by, and named after, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983 for his work on stellar structure and stellar evolution.
  • According to Encyclopædia Britannica, Raman Effect is the “change in the wavelength of light that occurs when a light beam is deflected by molecules.” The phenomenon is named for Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, who discovered it in 1928.

Cloth and material production (including button)

Handmade cotton manufacturing dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization (2000 BCE). Silk, Jute and Indigo dye were three of the most traded products through the Silk Route in ancient times.

  • The charkha (Spinning wheel) was invented in India between 500 and 1000 C.E.
  • Muslin was named after the city where Europeans first encountered it, Mosul ( in what is now Iraq), but the fabric actually originated in Dhaka (now the capital of Bangladesh).
  • The Buddhist sūtras, written on cloth in India, were transmitted to other regions of the world. These sūtras, written on banners, were the origin of prayer flags.

Single roller cotton gin: The Ajanta caves of India yield evidence of a single roller cotton gin in use by the 5th century.

Sanitation and drainage system

Excavations in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro revealed the use of highly developed drainage and sanitation engineering systems. The world’s earliest known system of flush toilets was in use in the Indus Valley Civilization (near united Punjab and Rajasthan area).

Martial arts

Kalarippayattu, considered to be the mother of all martial arts, first originated in Kerala, India, around the 3rd century BCE.

  • Early written evidence of martial arts is found in Dhanurveda a part of Atharva Veda and Rig Veda and in Sangam literature about Kalarippayattu.

It is claimed that learned warriors can disable or kill their opponents by merely touching the correct marmam (vital point).

Metrology

  • The incense clock is a timekeeping device used to measure minutes, hours, or days, which is mostly popular in China. Early incense clocks found in China (6th to 8th century BCE) seem to have Devanagari carvings instead of Chinese characters.
  • The chariot wheels in Konark temple (13th century AD) in Odisha can tell exact time accurately to a minute using sun rays and shadows.
  • Rulers made from ivory were used by the Indus Valley Civilization ( Pakistan and Northwestern India) prior to 1500 BCE.
  • The earliest evidence for the existence of weighing scale dates to 2400 BC – 1800 BC in the Indus Valley civilization prior to which no banking was performed due to the lack of scales.

The crescograph, a device for measuring growth in plants, was invented in the early 20th century by Bengali scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose.

Games

  • Chaturanga (Chess), the precursor of chess originated in India during the Gupta dynasty (c. 280 – 550 CE). Both the Persians and Arabs ascribe the origins of the game of chess to the Indians.
  • Pachisi (Ludo) originated in India by the 6th century. The earliest evidence of this game in India is the depiction of boards on the caves of Ajanta.

Vaikuntapali (Snakes and ladders) originated in India as a game based on morality. During the British rule of India, this game made its way to England and was eventually introduced in the United States of America by game-pioneer Milton Bradley in 1943.

These are only a few of the popular games that originated in India.

Space (Astronomy or Khagol-Shastra)

Numerous discoveries including determining the exact distances of the Moon, the Sun, and other planets from Earth were done without modern tools in around 5th Century BCE near East UP – Bihar.

  • Although the presence of water ice on the moon has been proposed by various scientists since the 1960s, inconclusive evidence of free water ice has also been identified. The first incontrovertible evidence of water on the moon was provided by the payload ChACE carried by the Moon Impact Probe released by Chandrayaan-1, which was confirmed and established by NASA.
  • The Hindu cosmological time cycles explained in the Surya Siddhanta (c.600 CE), give the average length of the sidereal year as 365.2563627 days, which is only a negligible 1.4 seconds longer than the modern value of 365.256363004 days. This remains the most accurate estimate for the length of the sidereal year anywhere in the world for over a thousand years.
  • Indian astronomers by the 6th century believed that comets were celestial bodies that re-appeared periodically. This concept of periodicity of comets expressed in the 6th century by astronomers Varahamihira and Bhadrabahu. The 10th century astronomer Bhaṭṭotpala listed the names and estimated periods of certain comets, but it is unfortunately not known how these figures were calculated or how accurate they were.

C. V. Vishveshwara discovered the quasinormal modes of black holes. These modes of black hole vibrations are one of the main targets of observation using the gravitational wave detectors.

Well-being

Yoga is known to have originated in prehistoric times. Patanjali collated the Yoga Sutras in 4th century BCE. It is the oldest science for physical, mental and spiritual well-being of humans. Also, now we have June 21 as International Yoga Day.

Quoting Twain again: “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.”

Let us all take the inspiration from this to fuel our journey of innovation to achieve greater well-being, both as an organization and as individuals. The baton is in our hands.

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About the Author

I am a product manager at HackerEarth. I work for the growth of Innovation Management product and Hackathon community.

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