Stunningly appropriate for Compasswallah, this quasi-mathematical quilt constructed by a British soldier stationed in India during 1863-1877, a few years after the Great Mutiny. 


Stunning military quilt by Francis Brayley. Made of wool.


Soldiers were encouraged to take up sewing as a valid alternative to the less salubrious pursuits of drinking and gambling; needlework was also used as a form of therapy for those injured in conflict and recuperating in hospital. Unsigned and undated, it was possibly made by Private Francis Brayley, who served in the 1st/11th Foot in India between 1863-1877. From the Muster Rolls Brayley appears to have enjoyed good health until the latter half of 1875 and most of 1876, when he was hospitalised due to ‘Rifle Drill Fatigue’. Brayley may have embarked on his patchwork during this period.

The Red Rust of Elephanta

The only survivor of an 18th century scientific expedition from Denmark to Arabia - was a German scholar by the name of Carsten Niebuhr. He arrived in September 1763 from Mocha to Bombay, where the last of his expedition members ( its only doctor ) was claimed by malaria.

“Mr. Cramer, sinking at length under his complaints, died at Bombay, on the 10th of February 1764, in spite of the cares of a skillful English physician,” notes his memoir. Given the nature of this expedition and the volatile political spectrum of the subcontinent, Niebuhr’s feverish description of India at that time is important.

His account outlines the struggle of multiple powers wrestling for control: the English empire on its rise, the lurking presence of embittered Marathas, and the waning of Portuguese influence - whom he takes the opportunity to mock in this story:

“A small fleet of merchant ships bound from Goa to Diu, under the protection of two frigates, was seen, one evening, off Bombay. In the night we heard a brisk firing of guns, and imagined that the Portuguese were engaged with the Mahrattas. But in the morning, it appeared that their exploits had ended merely in the destructions of a quantity of bamboos, from 30 to 40 feet high, which the fishermen had set up in a sand bank for the purposes of their fishing. Those valiant Portuguese had taken the bamboos for the masts of an hostile fleet. To crown their glory, the admiral found himself compelled by the governor of Bombay to pay damages to the fishermen.”

Describing the state of Hindu idols in the caves of Elephanta Island (which he visited thrice in order to draw its antiquities) Niebuhr wrote:

“I should suppose that the modern Indians no longer adore their ancient Gods, but have adopted new objects of worship, whom they represent by stones painted red, for want of more artificial statues. In many places through India, indeed, may be seen similar piles of red stones, which are held in high veneration among a people who have almost entirely lost all knowledge of the fine arts. The rest of the temple being perfectly neglected, is now the haunt of serpents and beasts of prey. One dares not enter it without first making several discharges of fire arms…”

The symbolic importance in Hindu culture of the vermilion pigment Niebuhr mentions cannot be over-stated, especially in relation to human blood and fertility. Niebuhr must have wondered, that by applying red color to stones the devout imbue them with a key attribute of life, a soul - or do they in turn imply that the Gods too are human and mortal?

Nevertheless, by the 19th century chemical science had established enough for the Victorian art critic and philosopher John Ruskin to note that the source of red color in earth, clay and blood is an oxide of iron. Ruskin declared eloquently in his 1858 lecture on The Work Of Iron In Nature, Art & Policy:

“It is not a fault in the iron, but a virtue, to be so fond of getting rusted, for in that condition it fulfils its most important functions in the universe, and most kindly duties to mankind. Nay, in a certain sense, and almost a literal one, we may say that iron rusted is Living; but when pure or polished, Dead. You all probably know that in the mixed air we breathe, the part of it essentially needful to us is called oxygen; and that this substance is to all animals, in the most accurate sense of the word, “breath of life.” The nervous power of life is a different thing; but the supporting element of the breath, without which the blood, and therefore the life, cannot be nourished, is this oxygen. Now it is this very same air which the iron breathes when it gets rusty.”

Another naturally magnetized oxide of iron, called magnetite - was known to the ancients in the form of lodestone which was used as a magnetic compass for navigation. That such a thing should exist - which of its own volition foretells the direction of things in the universe, would have been a cause of great mystery and wonderment. One of the investigators of this phenomenon, Guillaume Le Nautonier wrote ( around 1601) of this miraculous device as “that little piece of iron that seems to live and have judgement.”

In a sense, the very life in an object seems to come from either blood or magnetism, both of which are a result of the properties of iron, the element which is now understood to have the most stable nucleus. Soon after Nautonier it began to dawn in the works of William Gilbert and others that the Earth itself was a giant magnet, through which circulated magnetic fields from pole to pole ( like blood through a body ).

There must have been a few who wondered if the Earth too was a living God. What other reason could there be to carve out faces and forms that emerge in bas-relief from the rocks of a mountain, or inside the walls of a cave, rather than to suggest Gods emerging from the strata and body of Earth?

Strangely enough, it was the same John Ruskin who recited a poem titled Elephanta And Salsette, at Oxford in June 1839, which is what Niebuhr’s malarial brain must have felt at the sight of these somnambulant caves of colonial India -

Low in the dust, its rocky sculptures rent,
Thine own memorial proves thee impotent.
thy votaries mourn thy cold unheeding sleep,
Chide where they praised, and where they worshipped,

At the Worcester Art museum’s website, a Chola dynasty granite sculpture of trimurti “with traces of gesso and red pigment” has been described thusly: “…the four faces of Brahma symbolize the four Vedas as well as the cardinal points of the compass.”


  1. Herr Niebuhr & the Remarkable Traverse by C. Braton Crattie
  2. Niebuhr’s Trimurti drawings
  3. The Work Of Iron by John Ruskin

The Magic Hypercube Of Nasik



The Whipple Museum of the History of Science contains, among other mathematical objects, a magic hypercube constructed in 1877 by Andrew Hollingworth Frost at Nasik ( India ). 

This 3-dimensional Nasik square is the analogue of a magic square, whose rows, columns and diagonals all add up to the same number.

A Nasik magic cube is a magic cube with the added restriction that all 13m2 possible lines sum correctly to the magic constant. This class of magic cube is commonly called perfect

 The Nasik square of Frost was the first magic cube discovered. 

Frost had been a missionary in a city named Nasik in India. Thus, his cube is called a “Nasik cube”, and was published in 1866, in an English scientific magazine, The Quarterly Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics.


Frost (A. H.), “The Properties of Nasik Cubes,” Quarterly Journal of
Mathematics, London, 1878, p. 93. ( I don’t have access to this paper yet, if you do - please let me know. ) 

East India Company & the scientific revolution

I have mentioned the British East India Company at least twice this week in connection with the scientific revolution. Its fleet and merchants acted as pollinators of European science everywhere they went, knowingly or accidentally. 

Firstly, in the context of company sailors providing tidal data that would be used to support the theory of universal gravitation by Newton and his colleague Edmund Halley. 

Secondly, the history of logarithmic tables provides another connection with navigation: 

It was not until 1614 that Napier’s first work on this subject, Mirifia logarithmorum canonis descriptio (known as the Descriptio), was published. In addition to tables of logarithms the Descriptio also contains an account of the nature of logarithms and a number of examples explaining their use. The East India Company was so impressed by Napier’s Descriptio that it asked Edward Wright, a Cambridge mathematician and expert in navigation, to translate it into English for the benefit of the Company’s seafarers. From the very beginning of logarithms their utility to navigators has been of supreme importance in their development. (Graham Jagger, The Making of Logarithmic Tables)

David Arnold also observes that: “Company rule in India was contemporaneous with one of the most momentous phases of modern science, from the rise of Enlightenment natural history to the eve of Darwinian biology. “

The East India Company’s Court of Directors in London exercised a commanding position in relation to science in India. One of the leading patrons of science in Britain itself, on the subcontinent the Company and its servants enjoyed a near monopoly over Western scientific activity. Anxious to preserve its commercial privileges and prevent outsiders from undermining its authority, the Company closely regulated European access to India. Its approval was essential for any kind of scientific expedition to be undertaken and the Company was disinclined to allow scientific visitors, however eminent they might be. Apart from the French naturalist and traveller Victor Jacquemont, who died in India in 1831, the greatest exception to the scientific monopoly of Company servants was the expedition to India in 1848-50 of Joseph Dalton Hooker, the foremost botanist of nineteenth-century Britain. The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt sought, but was never granted, permission to visit India. Many leading British scientists of the period – Joseph Banks, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin among them – showed great interest in the natural history of India without ever visiting the country in person. Europe’s scientists and collectors relied instead on informal networks of contacts with army officers, doctors and officials – or on the magnanimity of the Company itself – to provide them with specimens, drawings and scientific information. ( David Arnold, Science, Technology & Medicine in Colonial India


  1. Newton On The Ganges, by Rohit Gupta being Volume 5 of The Compass Chronicles. 
  2. Telescopes, Logarithms & Computers: A 400 Year Journey on Zetatrek. 
  3. Image source


Camera Obscura.

Reading List #003: A Garden Of Stars

Below are some of the interesting articles that I came across while writing my monthly column The Compass Chronicles Vol. 5 for The Hindu BusinessLine. Here are Volume 4, Volume 3, Volume 2 and Volume 1.


  1.  The Fall Of Shergotty (pdf), by Kevin Kinchka
  2. Mystery of the meteorite in Bihar’s opium fields, by Amitava Ghosh
  3. A survey of Bengali writings in science and technology (1800-1950) by various authors. 
  4. Introduction of Modern Astronomy In India during 18-19 centuries, (pdf) by S.M. Razaullah Ansari
  5. The Growth of modern astronomy In India, R.K. Kochhar
  6. Modern Astronomy in Indo-Persian Sources, by S.M. Razaullah Ansari
  7. Transit Of Mercury, 1651: Earliest telescopic observation in India by R. K. Kochhar 
  8. The Philosopher Burmese Prince & the Air Pump, by Jonathan Saha

Clockwork To Chaos: an online workshop (19 July-19 Oct 2014)



This manuscript page from 1665 shows a 23-year old Isaac Newton calculating the area under a hyperbola ( the curve drawn on the top left of the page).

He calculates no less than 55 decimal places, meticulously adding values from each term of an infinite series. The series emerges…


We close pollinator week with this animated tribute to the bees, bugs, birds, bats, and others who make life a little sweeter.
Original from Maria Sibylla Merian’s Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung , 1730


We close pollinator week with this animated tribute to the bees, bugs, birds, bats, and others who make life a little sweeter.

Original from Maria Sibylla Merian’s Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung , 1730

(via scientificillustration)

[Lecture] Secrets of the 3rd Dimension


In this workshop, Compasswallah will use 3D-printing technology to showcase cosmic visions of solid geometry from the 16th century in Germany.

Artists, philosophers and mathematicians have studied the beauty of the five Platonic solids for thousands of years. The astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed in his 1592 book that these shapes were embedded into the very structure of the universe. A wide variety of such structures - known as polyhedra were subsequently discovered - and used as models to explain atoms, crystals, viruses, radiolaria, or simply as ornamental motifs.

Even before Kepler, artists and goldsmiths such as Wenzel Jamnitzer in Nuremberg had begun to use Platonic geometry in their designs. Most of these designs remained imaginary for centuries, but today we can use modelling software like AutoCad or Solidworks to bring them into reality with 3D printers. Maker’s Asylum is a community workshop in Bandra (Mumbai), dedicated to spreading technical know-how around this technology.

The lecture will outline a history of 3-dimensional geometry and its role in biology, physics and chemistry. Alongside, the audience will see a live demo of a solid object being printed out by the machine.

Registration: There is a minimum donation of INR 400, to be paid on arrival. Seats will be limited to first 20 people who register online.

Time: Wednesday June 25, 6-8pm

Links: ,

Venue: Maker’s Asylum, Rizvi Palace Building, Next to Mamma Mia’s Pizza, Opp Yoko’s Sizzlers, Chinchpokli Road, Off Hill Road, Bandra West, MUMBAI 400050, MH, INDIA

Contact: Vaibhav: +91 7710991000 or Rohit: +91 97847 09366

About the speaker: 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 2000-2014 includes a published collection of science-fiction, comics, a variety of essays, innovations in new media art and technology, lectures, film and workshops. ( He tweets as @fadesingh )


Carnivalesque Vol. 102: A Midsummer Dream


Carnivalesque is an interdisciplinary blog carnival dedicated to pre-modern history upto the year 1800 CE. Compasswallah is proud to host the 102nd edition putting the history of science in focus, with an eye turned to the farthest fringes of human art & culture

Perhaps the most famous figure in pre-modern western literature, William Shakespeare “was born just twenty-one years after Copernicus’ De revolutionibus was published and lived through the period in which Kepler and Galileo, among others, made the heliocentric hypothesis..”. This correspondence has inspired a book on Shakespearean science by Dan Falk, which is examined closely for historical accuracy by The Renaissance Mathematicus. The bard’s 450th birth anniversary also marks the release of a book by two antiquarian booksellers who claim to be in possession of a dictionary Shakespeare often consulted. 

At the H-word Rebekah Higgitt looks at another famous literary persona, of the marooned sailor Robinson Crusoe, explicating that it was a hoax: ”While the book is seen today as an important precursor to the novel, as part of a new genre of realistic fiction, it was designed, at least in part, to confuse and to question. Robinson Crusoe was its purported author, not its title.” The theme of nautical adventures is continued by Benjamin Breen at The Appendix in “A Pirate Surgeon in Panama" describing a curious encounter of European medical thought with that of the natives circa 1670:

But if [Lionel] Wafer is far from the only seventeenth-century European to leave a report of his adoption into an Indian tribe, there are aspects of his story that are virtually unique. As we’ve seen, he practiced a form of hybrid Kuna-European medicine.

The untimely death of two negro crewmen aboard Captain Cook's  circumnavigation of the globe in 1769 are the subject of Richard Conniff's short note at Strange Behaviors. And Michiel van Groesen looks into the iconography of Columbus’s 1592 landing in Americas. 


Although sea voyages were rendered less dangerous by maps, cartography has always had deeper implications than just to navigation, such as psychogeographical diagrams of belief or cosmology. David Bressan outlines a concise history of geological maps, in a series of four posts

Following a bunch of recent open-access initiatives, the New York public Library has released thousands of historical maps online. Following close on its heels is the Leiden Library with 12,000 Dutch colonial maps from Indonesia, Antilles & Surinam. 

A Memorial & Miscellany

The ensemble of 34 posts remembering the passing of art historian Hasan Niyazi are a rich memory of the art historian himself, and also the subjects touched upon by him. In this context Daydream Tourist writes on the painting technique of sfumato and its science

Sfumato, which come from the Italian word for smoke, is the effect of creating transitions from light to dark without any discernible lines.  An invention of the Renaissance, it is a technique most closely associated with its champion Leonardo da Vinci.

In Luca, Leonardo, Albrecht and the search for the third dimension, Thony Christie carves a circuitous route in the history of renaissance mathematics and finally connects it to Hasan Niyazi’s favorite painter, Raphael. 

Two experiments in the digital domain worth mentioning are Wilfried Hou Je Bek’s comparative recipes of 16th versus 20th century food, and  B4XVI, where hip hop meets the middle ages. Also worth reading is the latest in a continuing series of discussions around the reboot of a TV series called Cosmos, in which they talk about Kepler and the age of the Earth

Finally, the world’s oldest decimal multiplication tables were found in a market in Hong Kong, and an archaeological trail of grains has pushed back the period of Silk Road interactions by 2000 years.   

[ Image sources: Top> unidentified image from British Library Or. 5259 f29 Middle > Ebstorf Mappa Mundi ]