The Compass Chronicles Vol. I: Tales of Attraction

(This is the annotated version of my new column for The Hindu Business Line’s magazine BLink, published on April 4, 2014. The image is a depiction of the Konark Sun temple from James Fergusson’s 1847 text Ancient Architecture in Hindoostan. 

That the Sun Temple of Konark once contained a giant lodestone magnet, which held the entire edifice together by its force — is a story often told. And in the telling, this tale becomes taller, whence idols in the sanctum sanctorum begin to levitate, and the temple’s magnetic field is said to disorient the mariner’s compass on any ship passing in the Bay of Bengal. Or imagine, the holy magnet pulling out all the iron nails of a Chinese wooden ship causing it to fall apart. Some have even tried to explain the infamous Indian rope trick using various magnetic contrivances.

Another tall story, both incredible and uncertain, attributed to an American general named Benjamin Alvord in a letter to the poet Longfellow (circa 1842), is about a magnetic plant: “There has been discovered in the forests of India a strange plant (philotacea electrica) which possesses, to a very high degree, astonishing magnetic power. The hand which breaks a leaf from it receives immediately a shock equal to that which is produced by the conductor of an induction coil. At a distance of six metres a magnetic needle is affected by it, and it will be quite deranged if brought near. The energy of this singular influence varies with the hours of the day. All powerful about two o’clock in the afternoon, it is absolutely annulled during the night. At times of storm its intensity augments to striking proportions. While it rains the plant seems to succumb: it bends its head during a thunder-shower and remains without force or virtue even if one should shelter it with an umbrella. No shock is felt at that time in breaking the leaves, and the needle is unaffected by it. One never by any chance sees a bird or insect alight on this electric plant; an instinct seems to warn them that in so doing they would find sudden death. It is also important that where it grows none of the magnetic metals are found, neither iron, nor cobalt, nor nickel — an undeniable proof that the electric force belongs exclusively to the plant. Light and heat, phosphorescence, magnetism, electricity, how many mysteries and botanical problems does this wondrous Indian plant conceal within its leaf and flower!”

Apart from a few scattered references, the history of magnetism in India prior to the British Raj is poorly documented, much to the chagrin of science historians. That Indian sailors were already using the magnetic compass had been noted by Vasco Da Gama (circa 1497). A few decades later, while sailing near Goa and Bombay, the Portuguese naval officer João de Castro discovered magnetic declinations in his compass caused by nearby ferrous rocks. Even Sawai Jai Singh II, the astronomer-king of Jaipur — although his artistic sundials are singular — seems to have had little interest in magnetism.

The first major character in magnetism from India appears to be Jagadish Chandra Bose in the late 19th century, by whose time the relationship between electricity and magnetism had been firmly established. And for some reason Bose began to investigate the electrical and magnetic signals in plants through his invention, the magnetic crescograph. There is no public record, but one wonders whether Bose knew of that mysterious Indian plant mentioned by Alvord, the philotacea electrica. His early biographer Philip Geddes does mention a similar American “compass plant” (silphium laciniatum) in the book The Life & Work Of Sir Jagadis C Bose (1920).

More importantly, Geddes describes Bose’s spectacular experiments with radio waves: “Bose himself had as early as 1895, in a public lecture in Calcutta, demonstrated the ability of electric rays to travel from the lecture-room, and through an intervening room and passage, to a third room 75 feet away from the radiator, thus passing through three solid walls on the way, as well as the body of the chairman (who happened to be the Lieutenant-Governor). The receiver at this distance still had energy enough to make a contact, which set a bell ringing, discharged a pistol, and exploded a miniature mine.”

This ability to transmit signals through space would soon evolve with better engineering into sophisticated radar systems in the build-up to World War II, and radar — in as much as it was being used for the purpose of sea and air navigation, was really an advanced avatar of the magnetic compass. Both the radio and the compass were for Bose, ways of seeing “invisible light”, they were his prosthetic Third Eye — for visible light and radio waves were different slices of the same electromagnetic spectrum.

Bose’s vision is both romantic and eloquent, he writes: “From amongst the innumerable octaves of light, there is only one octave, with power to excite the human eye. In reality, we stand, in the midst of a luminous ocean, almost blind! The little that we can see is nothing, compared to the vastness of that which we cannot. But it may be said that out of the very imperfection of his senses, man has been able, in science, to build for himself a raft of thought by which to make daring adventure on the great seas of the unknown.”

Further Reading

  1. The Life & Work Of Sir Jagadis C Bose (1920) by Geddes
  2. João de Castro, the Portuguese officer and scientist is notable in this regard:”..the comments made by João de Castro are the most important record of values of magnetic declination in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, in the sixteenth century, and useful for the study of terrestrial magnetism. He made 43 determination of magnetic declination through rigorous measurements of geomagnetic declination over the entire circum-Africa route. The instrument used by him was the Bussola de Variacão, also developed by Felipe Guillen a decade earlier in Seville. João de Castro undertook many observations and can in a way be considered as one of the discoverers of crustal magnetism. He discovered spatial variations of Declination in that Bay of Bombay (near Baçaim), which he attributed to the disturbing effects of underwater rock masses (this is near where the large basaltic and rather strongly magnetized Deccan traps outcrop). In the 1890s, G. Hellman, quoted by Chapman and Bartels (1940), considered Castro to be the most important representative of scientific maritime investigations of the time, and the method he tested was universally introduced on ships and was used until the end of the sixteenth century.
  3. On The Compass Plant by Benjamin Alvord
  4. Silphium Laciniatum, the compass plant: Wikipedia
  5. Gautam Pemmaraju asked if there were some ancient sources for magnetism and I found this from Magnetism In Medicine: A Handbook by Nowak & Andra: 

E. Morieu. Astronomy Plate for Charles Bouret’s Geographic Atlas. Mexico, Paris. 1878.


E. Morieu. Astronomy Plate for Charles Bouret’s Geographic Atlas. Mexico, Paris. 1878.

Giants’ Shoulders Vol. 68: A Leaf On The Wind


[ Giants’ Shoulders is a monthly round-up of the most interesting blogs and articles from the history of science. For previous editions, please see the archive.

Asian Odyssey

We begin this whirlwind circumnavigation of the world with a link between Charles Darwin and the Mughal empire, both of which shared - perhaps for different reasons, a passion for pigeons, which suggests that Darwin knew about Abu’l-Fazl’s chapter on the subject. In a similar vein, it is worth recalling Sawai Jai Singh ( the astronomer-king of Jaipur, who created the solar observatory ) and his European connections.

An ancient Gandhari manuscript is the subject of this expansive article on “how to decipher a 4000 year-old tax return”. Down south near the waters of Sri Lanka, archaeologists prepare to excavate the oldest known shipwreck in the Indian Ocean. Such long oceanic journeys, and the fighting of wars oversea depended heavily on techniques of food processing and preservation. 

Chemical preservation is also employed to archive biological specimens for centuries. The Asian origins of a rare elephant foetus purchased by none other than Carl Linnaeus are examined in this fascinating summary of a lecture by Anna Marie Roos. Sometimes nature creates time capsules of its own, buried not too deep beneath its skin. Suvrat Kher talks about the first dinosaur fossil discovered in India, in 1828 by Captain Sleeman of the Bengal Army. 

A highly suspect claim that spectacles, or reading eyeglasses - were invented in India is taken to the surgery table by The Renaissance Mathematicus.

Meanwhile, Jaipreet Virdi has revealed some beautiful photographs of Indian women studying medicine in the 19th century. Around the same period, the beginnings of physical astronomy in India (pdf) at the Kodaikanal observatory are essayed in the latest issue of Current Science. We also find  - in a history of the cafeteria at the Indian Institute of Science, a “link between masala dosas and war”.

Moving up to ancient China, Carla Nappi writes about the Qing Bodies project, “a long-term multi-media foray into considering various forms of scientific and medical writing in the Qing period from the perspective of a history of storytelling”; for example, consider this inventive translation of a Manchu recipe as drama. There is more on Chinese heritage in this post about The Year of the Horse which began on January 31. And who knew that the famous device known as the Yellow Emperor’s south-pointing chariot features in a Japanese fairy tale

As our caravan moves west, the review of a new book called “Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane” provides a nice summary of the history of sciences in the region. 

A single leaf from an Arabic version of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica is noticed by bintbattuta, and starts floating on a trade wind towards the dark continent. 

The African Fold


The sunrise in your gray eyes speaks
the history of man with no words.
Silence spirals across the sky.
This nautiloid look from the inside.

An astronomer in the Namibian desert tells his story through an evocative poem.

Carla Klehm in The Appendix Journal narrates an expansive history of the Kalahari desert through the culture of glass beads. She writes: 

Glass beads help link the archaeologist to a time and a place beyond ancient texts and oral histories, when this part of Africa—thousands of miles from the Indian Ocean—traded with the Middle East, India, Indonesia, and China. This is a story about the tiny trails of history the beads have left us.

Drawings of Egyptian mummies and “negros preparing indigo” are found in a post about 17th century French apothecary Pierre Pomet’s treatise: A Compleat History of Drugs

Keeping in mind that jihadist rebels in Mali torched a large archive of scientific manuscripts, it is heartening to read about how some brave scholars smuggled a majority of them to safety in and out of Timbuktu.

Before stepping further, take a moment to see the many projects underway at the Endangered Archives project. 

Europe & Americas

Worth glancing at is a missive from Poland, about Stanisław Lubieniecki’s monumental Theatrum cometicum, a compendium of “all comets that have been mentioned in historical records that were available in the mid-seventeenth century and which appeared on the firmament in the period between the biblical flood and the year 1665 C.E.” 

Surely the comets must have been visiting the firmament long before the humans evolved enough to become astronomers, before the continents drifted apart from a primordial Pangea. 

Some 50 million years ago, Africa was pushed north in Europe creating a long mountain range. Andalucia was part of this.

A geologist looks at the history of Andalucia with a dizzying sense of the passage of time: 

Around 3000 years ago (1100BC) the Phoenicians reached Andalucia, founding the town of Cadiz. A culture that reached across the Mediterranean they were also involved in trade with the British Isles. Tin from Cornwall in England was smelted with Spanish copper and the resulting bronze traded on.

A very pleasant news this month came from the British Isles, where both the British Library and the Wellcome Trust have unloaded huge cargoes of scientific archives online for the public to use. The BL’s inventive software bot known as The Mechanical Curator is worthy of much analysis. What does the algorithmic analysis of digitized manuscripts mean for history studies? A post by Whitney Trettien on automatic layout analysis might illustrate some of that. 

Sadly, questions of gender-bias in the scientific world continue to cause much consternation

The history of alchemy has also been under a lot of scrutiny recently. No surprise that it is finally being recognized by the media as a proto-science, rather than pseudoscience. Especially notable is the lifelong involvement of Sir Isaac Newton, whose highly complex personality continues to inspire much debate.

From here we set sail across the Atlantic with the illustrious chemist Joseph Priestly, to meet Thomas Jefferson in America at the end of the 18th century. 

The voices from North America speak of a new book showcasing the history of globes, the silver teapot of Benjamin Franklin, Louis Pasteur’s studies on yeast and beer.

Lastly, a look at how the inhabitants of Marshall Islands used stick charts to map the waves

Hic Sunt Dracones

If we have missed certain regions of the globe, it is because I have not come across active scribes from that region on the internet. Some of them are inaccessible due to their native language, some due to the lack of intercultural bridges, and some mainly due to my own ignorance. I hope you will pardon any such omissions.  

However, a vibrant community of science historians are constantly feeding the river of information on Twitter, and you’ll never step into the same river twice. The tag they use is #histsci 

The host for the next edition of Giants’ Shoulders will be announced shortly by Thony Christie at The Renaissance Mathematicus, and if you’d like to host a future edition please drop him a line. Needless to say, but I am very grateful to Thony for giving me this opportunity. You can find me on twitter as @fadesingh

[ Header Image: anonymous painting, India c. 1850, Middle Image is a cartographic painting by artist Fernando Vicente


From The Walters Art Museum:
A single leaf from a dispersed manuscript of the Arabic version of De materia medica by Dioscorides (active ca. 65) that was copied in 621 AH/AD 1224 in Baghdad. Approximately 30 illustrations were removed from this parent manuscript that are now in public and private collections. The leaf depicts two doctors preparing medicine. A funnel is set on a tripod over a vessel. The two men preparing the medicinal draught stand on either side of the tripod beside two fruit trees.


From The Walters Art Museum:

A single leaf from a dispersed manuscript of the Arabic version of De materia medica by Dioscorides (active ca. 65) that was copied in 621 AH/AD 1224 in Baghdad. Approximately 30 illustrations were removed from this parent manuscript that are now in public and private collections. The leaf depicts two doctors preparing medicine. A funnel is set on a tripod over a vessel. The two men preparing the medicinal draught stand on either side of the tripod beside two fruit trees.

The Lost Dinosaur of Jabalpur

One of the many startling interactions in colonial science would have been between Darwin’s theory of evolution and Hindu mythology, which contains many depictions of mixed up species, such as Ganesha’s elephant head and four arms and the many zoomorphic avatars of Vishnu. I haven’t yet sought ( and thus found ) much material on that because biology hasn’t been a priority. Nonetheless, it was interesting to note that: 

The first dinosaur from the Indian subcontinent was discovered in the year 1828 by Captain W. H. Sleeman of the Bengal Army from the Lameta Formation near Jabalpur. The bones collected were passed on to a series of learned amateur palaeontologists that included Spilsbury to James Princep (1832) to Thomas Oldham (1862) to Hugh Falconer who identified them as reptilian bones (1868). Richard Lydekker studied these bones along with the bones collected by H.B Medlicot (1877) from the overlying horizons at Jabalpur and established a type species Titanosarus indicus - the first dinosaur to be describe from India. 

The name William H. Sleeman will be familiar to those who have encountered the notorious history of Thugee in colonial India. As a prominent official of the Raj and keen naturalist, he may even have had access or correspondence with Charles Darwin, whose monumental book the Origin of Species came out in 1859, decades after Sleeman’s discovery. However, that is difficult to say. 

The specimen Sleeman found has an interesting story of its own, since it was ”considered lost since 1877 after it was formally named as Titanosaurus Indicus by Richard Lydekker. The specimen represents a left caudal vertebrae and is shown in left lateral view.” (pictured below)

This tale is reminiscent of the writer Jorge Luis Borges in a sense, who loved recursive labyrinths of this sort. The bone was considered lost within its own archive, where it was supposed to be preserved.

It’s like a small collection of lost books inside the library of Alexandria, or a lost fossil inside the Smithsonian museum, or a lost file on your computer’s hard disk, waiting for a future archaeologist who specializes in unearthing a memory buried within memories. 


  1. Late Cretaceous Dinosaurs In India: Diversity, Habitat & Extinction by Suvrat Kher of Rapid Uplift
  2. Rambles & Recollections Of An Indian Official, by W.H. Sleeman
  3. Rediscovering the first dinosaur in India (pdf), by Geological Survey of India
  4. Missing dinosaur tail found in a cupboard, the Daily Mail 
  5. Treasure Trove of Dinosaur Eggs Found In India

[Note: Source of the image on top. Bone Wars lithograph of Stegosaurus remains: One of the many lithographs produced under the direction of Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh during the infamous late-19th century Bone Wars.]

नयी सूचना: Scholarships, Registrations & More



We are now one day away from embarking on a nine month journey, as you may have heard. So here are some clarifications and new facts.

The workshop is being hosted in the ZetaTrek mailing list which has been active for three years. One might ask, but what the hell is ZetaTrek? Okay, so a…

Press Release by Khanabadosh: The Age of Re:discovery

Starts: January 29, 2014

Ends: October 19, 2014

To register email:

For additional details:

 Excavation of the past and contemplation of the future are the same intellectual undertaking. - Maharaja Sawai Jaisingh II of Jaipur.

 The Age Of Re:discovery, an online workshop, is aimed at making the history of science relevant to the urban situation. The idea of discovery has drawn flak in part because of its associations with colonialism and its oppressive regimes. Through this project Compasswallah recasts this contested term by making it an agent for a sustainable future.

 Thus far, the trajectories of several discoveries, scientific and otherwise, have suffered at the hands of eventual misappropriation. As space travel becomes increasingly likely and we enter a new age of discovery, human kind’s penchant for littering and misuse of resources begins its colonisation of outer space in the form of space junk, which has every potential of eventually taking over interstellar spaces.

 With that in mind The Age of Re:discovery becomes an urgent contemporary exercise. As if we were taking the lessons of yesterday in the context of tomorrow, but applying them today.

 Among other things this workshop is about the ecology of materials, and the relationship of living spaces with culture, and the rest of the planet or universe. It is about the fundamental connections between various sciences that allow us to live maximally in minimum resources. Making a different kind of planet is also a form of traveling through space (without even moving?).

 Coming back to the project’s formal manifestation i.e. the workshop model. With most explorations of the model being pegged as satellite events around exhibitions and the like, the workshop paradigm has yet to find its feet as an artistic practice within contemporary art.

 In November 2011, Compasswallah launched Zetatrek, an online workshop, which takes on the Riemann hypothesis. Over three years a community of non-specialists has been plugging away at the hypothesis—often considered the most important unresolved problem in pure mathematics—proposed in 1859 by the influential German mathematician Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann.

 Having first explored the workshop model—online and offline—in 2011, Compasswallah has with time become convinced of its artistic and collaborative potential. The Age Of Re:discovery seeks to engage a translocal community of non-specialists. An autodidact, Compasswallah is keen on collaborating with non-specialists allergic to high priests who would rather they controlled ‘discoveries’ of all manner.

 A suite of offline workshops and other projects will mark the duration of this nine-month online expedition, for which individuals from ten countries have already signed up. 

 - Gitanjali Dang


 Additional material: In The Rickshaw Observatory, a short video introducing the project, the artist takes on the idea of discovery as found in popular visual and aural cultures.


 About the artist: The term compasswallah is 19th century colonial slang for British surveyors roaming the Indian countryside with telescopes and sextants. It is also the assumed identity of Rohit Gupta, an artist, writer and historian of mathematics and science. Gupta’s corpus of work from 2000-2013 includes a published collection of science-fiction, comics, a variety of essays, innovations in new media art and technology, lectures and pedagogical workshops.

Twitter handle: @fadesingh

Blogs:  +

About Khanabadosh: An itinerant arts lab based out of Bombay, Khanabadosh is anchored in inclusionary spirit of interdisciplinarity, parallel contexts, new publics, and expanded aesthetics. The lab is invested in fields of knowledge and ways of life that heckle traditional typologies such as aesthetics, artist, artwork and the like. Khanabadosh was initiated in 2012 by curator, writer and shapeshifter Gitanjali Dang.

Contact: +91.98204.14851 / /


The Chemical Tantric's Combinatorial Cabinet



Chemistry is the interface through which life interacts with life. Only when we look at chemistry as molecular commerce, do we realize that the great carbon cycle is akin to a Silk Road of the biosphere.

During the nine-month expedition approaching us fast, one of our main concerns will…

Lighthouses of the Future


(….another short post as a preview to The Age of Re:discovery online workshop, which starts Jan 25, 2014. Everyone can join it! )

State of the art, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World, the great lighthouse of Alexandria, built around 280 B.C., towered some 450 feet above Egypt’s greatest harbor. At that height, it was the second tallest structure in the world, after another of the seven — the Great Pyramid of Giza. The light within, also state of the art, was an open flame.

From that time until the 18th century, the lights that warned ships that they were approaching land improved hardly at all. Some burned coal. Others stuck with wood. Oil lamps backed by mirrors eventually offered a bit more candlepower. Still, every coastline in the world remained littered with the ribs of broken ships whose captains didn’t see the lighthouse until it was too late. Then, in 1822, a frail scientist with a passion for optics made a revolutionary breakthrough. His name was Augustin Jean Fresnel.

…the article quoted above goes on the describe the invention of Fresnel’s lens.

The history of lighthouses may involve strange, meandering paths through the scattered fields of optics, geometry, glass-making, chemistry, combustion and thermodynamics, and signal communication. 

Speaking of signals, Sir William Thomson ( a.k.a Lord Kelvin ) came up with a scheme inspired by Charles Babbage to encode numbers in the pulses from a light house. Such numbers could now be able to distinguish between different lighthouses to sailors, ensuring a safer return to harbor. This system would be akin to some kind of Morse code  with light, reminiscent of a heliograph

Exoplanets that circumambulate distant suns cause similar cryptic fluctuations in the light of the parent star, which gives our astronomers information about the mass and composition of such worlds. 


  1. Science makes a better lighthouse lens, Bruce Watson
  2. Lighthouses of the Future, by Lord Kelvin
  3. Eddystone Lighthouse (1836), engraved by W.B.Cooke is the image above. 
  4. The History of Lighthouses: Wikipedia

The Blueprint Of Re:discovery (Part One)



Over the next few posts, I will briefly cover some of the salient ideas that I have picked from a large corpus of history for the upcoming workshop. ( The registrations are currently open and anyone can join.) One may think of this as a broad outline of the syllabus. However, the actual…