The Sciences

Engineers' Day: The Story of the Irishman Who Moulded Visvesvaraya's Alma Mater

Commemorating Engineers' Day, the birth anniversary of the noted engineer and statesman M. Visvesvaraya, with a look at the career of one of his illustrious professors

A young Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya (1861-1962) arrived in the city of Poona in 1880 to join its Civil Engineering College, one of four such colleges established by the British in 19th century India.

We can picture him standing before the central building, an imposing structure built of the grey stone characteristic of Poona’s colonial-era institutions. A carved frog, flanked by two other gargoyles, casts an appraising glance at him from atop the portico. He is surrounded by chirping birds among large banyans and leaf-strewn paths; in the distance he hears the thrum and clang of the workshops. A few hundred yards away, the rivers Mula and Mutha flow sluggishly towards their meeting point.

But for the significance of the physical setting, we might imagine, Visvesvaraya is conscious of a towering personality already synonymous with the college: its square-jawed, bearded principal, Theodore Cooke.

An Irishman who championed the cause of Indian engineers and played a key role in their training, Cooke was born in County Waterford in 1836. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, where he took what would today be called a double major, in the faculties of arts and engineering. He then joined the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway, for which he led the building of an iron bridge at Bassein (Vasai). Just a few years into his career as a railway engineer, he was snapped up by the Bombay government’s educational service, becoming the principal at the Poona college when he was not yet thirty.

The Poona college had been set up in 1854 as a school to train subordinates for the Public Works Department (PWD). In the mid-1860s, around the time Cooke took over, it was upgraded to a fully fledged college of engineering to train officers at all levels of the PWD hierarchy, and empowered to award the Licentiate of Civil Engineering (LCE) qualification of the Bombay University. Cooke headed the college for nearly three decades until his retirement in 1893.

The PWD in India had traditionally been manned by British military engineers. Institutions like the Poona Civil Engineering College were an innovation in two ways. First, they were based on the possibility of creating civilian engineers to serve the state. Second, they were to create (some of) them out of ‘native’ Indians. Thus, the top-ranking graduate of the LCE class at Poona was guaranteed an appointment as an assistant engineer in the Bombay PWD.

However, parts of the colonial bureaucracy were not overly enthused about the prospect of recruiting Indian engineers. In 1871, the government declared that it would only offer an appointment to the top student if he graduated first class.

The main building of the College of Civil Engineering. Photo: Suchakra/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The main building of the College of Civil Engineering. Photo: Suchakra/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Principal Cooke, who had only been in harness a few years at this point, wrote an eloquent missive of protest to the Bombay government’s director of public instruction. He argued that this new requirement insisting on a first class, if applied suddenly, would amount to ‘a breach of faith on the part of Government’. He extolled the abilities of the Indian students he had observed and argued against the prejudice they faced.

“As a refutation of the idea too frequently entertained as to the unfitness of the natives of this country for the Engineering profession,” he wrote, “it will be sufficient for me to point to the many monuments of ancient Engineering and Architectural skill which are [everywhere] to be found throughout India, and which in beauty, fitness of design, and stability have never been equalled here by any of our European Engineers.” He added that the graduates of the LCE course were in no way inferior to the engineers being imported each year from Britain, where they were recruited by open competition.

Cooke also argued that the course of study at Poona was so wide-ranging and rigorous that even to pass was a creditable achievement, let alone secure a first class. The programme, he continued, “demands from each candidate a high knowledge of pure and mixed Mathematics, Chemistry (General and Analytical) Physical Science (including Heat, Electricity, and Magnetism) Geology, Architecture, Engineering, and Surveying. In addition, the candidate must be a good Draftsman,” and that he would not pass unless he scored a certain minimum in all these branches of study.

“Intellects which have the power of grasping in a tolerably equal degree subjects so various and distinct,” he said, were “not commonly met with”. A first class was naturally even harder to win: it required an aggregate score of 66.66%, in those days a very tall order, and was intended to be a “distinction … but seldom gained”. As a result, the prospect of a PWD appointment would virtually vanish, and few students would want to join the college in future years. As it turned out, a first class was awarded in most years in the following decade, and the college flourished. But Cooke’s intervention had demonstrated his commitment to the institution where he was to spend the majority of his working life.

As a scholar and teacher, Cooke was a polymath who straddled the worlds of theory and practice, of classical and scientific learning. As an undergraduate at Dublin, he had been “Hebrew prizeman, first honoursman, and senior moderator and gold medallist in science” in the arts faculty. He had also “obtained special certificates in mechanics, chemistry, mineralogy, mining, and geology” in the engineering faculty.

His scientific specialisation was in geology and his vocation, that of civil engineering, but in his spare time he would examine the plants of the Bombay Presidency, eventually heading the work of the Botanical Survey of India for western India in 1891.

After retirement, he set to work producing what would become the seven-volume Flora of the Presidency of Bombay from his base at Kew, the London suburb that was home to the Royal Botanical Gardens. He had other less academic hobbies as well, such as photography and music; he had trained the college band at Poona.

Among Cooke’s pedagogical contributions at Poona was the compilation of a handbook of geology commissioned by the Bombay government. He called it “a small and cheap elementary text book, which should present to native youths some of the leading facts of the science of Geology, without entering too much into detail.”

He also brought a refreshing approach to the instruction of geology, insisting on the importance of field trips. “I cannot too strongly recommend an occasional geological excursion,” he wrote in the preface to his textbook, “as I believe that nothing tends more to make Geology popular to youths, as a study, than freeing it from the trammels of a school-room, and associating it with pleasant rambles in the open air.”

Speaking of Cooke’s emphasis on learning by doing, the governor of Bombay said at a public event in 1878: “Not only does he teach the theory of engineering, but he insists upon making his pupils go through the workshop and handle things with their own hands, so that they have a practical knowledge of the manner in which they are to earn their living.”

Additionally, Cooke was a gifted lecturer. In the manner made popular by scientists like Humphrey Davy at London’s Royal Institution, he delivered public lectures with the aid of elaborately prepared, often spectacular live experiments. At one such talk in 1878 at Bombay’s Sassoon Mechanics’ Institute, Cooke spoke on the practical uses of electricity. The Times of India reported at the time that he used a galvanic battery to melt iron and copper, showed a magnet being deflected by the passage nearby of electric current, explained the working of the telegraph and demonstrated “the luminous effects of electricity” when he “produced a very brilliant light by passing the current through gas carbon obtained from the retorts of the Bombay Gas Works.”

We do not know what exactly Visvesvaraya – the most famous alumnus of the Poona college – thought of or learnt from Cooke, as his laconic memoirs skip over his college days and begin with his first posting in the Bombay PWD. But his influence must have been palpable. Cooke, in turn, would certainly have followed Visvesvaraya’s progress: the latter was the top LCE graduate, with a first class, in the Bombay University convocation of January 1884.

Also read: The Little Known Histories of Indian and British Engineers Before 1947

In 1894, the year after Cooke had left for London to take up an appointment at the Imperial Institute, a commemoration of his service was held in Poona. The celebrated scholar R.G. Bhandarkar chaired the meeting and spoke of Cooke’s mentorship. Alumni had sent messages of support and a committee was set up to collect contributions towards a memorial fund in Cooke’s name, which would be used to build hostel facilities. Visvesvaraya was one of the secretaries of the committee.

The internal contradictions of colonial rule meant that the engineering college at Poona and its 19th century counterparts in Roorkee, Madras and Shibpur (in West Bengal) were used more as a source of engineering subordinates such as overseers and surveyors, while the higher echelons of the engineering profession were dominated by imported British engineers until well into the 20th century.

Yet these subordinates made no mean contribution to the engineering works springing up across the subcontinent, while the select few Indian graduates of the university-level classes, such as Visvesvaraya of Poona or Ganga Ram and L.P. Misra of Roorkee, no doubt became role models for an emerging generation of Indians.

Aparajith Ramnath is a historian of modern science, technology and business. He teaches at Ahmedabad University. The views expressed here are personal.