Ever wanted to see grass grow? Jagadish Bose did. So he invented something that would help him. He also figured out how to set off gunpowder by radio, and became the father of Bengali science fiction.
Jagadish Chandra Bose was born in 1858, in Bikrampur, Bengal, where he got an early start at being both extremely smart and very nice to people. His father was a magistrate, and his parents were fairly well-to-do. They used their excess wealth to feed the children in the neighborhood, many of whom were Jagadish’s school friends. Although he wasn’t overly exposed to nature as a child, he loved to hear the other children talk about their adventures in the outdoors, and as an adult he reflected that their stories might have sparked an early interest in the sciences.
Seeking an outlet for his interest in science, he went to study medicine in London. The dissection labs played such hell with his health that he had to give up medicine and study natural science. This, apparently, meant any science whatsoever. Although he became an acting professor of physics at Presidency College, he studied everything he could get his hands on.
This isn’t to say his work in physics suffered. He invented a version of the “coherer,” a detecting device for radio waves. He demonstrated it in 1895, by sending out radio waves to a device that would make a bell ring, and, for a more spectacular show, a device that set off gunpowder. Although he was offered money by private interests if he patented the device, he refused, reasoning that science would progress more quickly if everyone had access to his inventions. At that point people began to think he was just showing off his virtue.
When he wasn’t making breakthroughs in radio technology, he invented a somewhat less entertaining device. Bose was an avid botanist, and was frustrated that he couldn’t quantify how fast they grew under certain conditions. He engineered the crescograph, a device that used wires gently attached at one end to a plant and at the other end to fine clockwork to measure how fast plants grew each hour. As a plant grew, the movement was recorded on smoked glass. Bose used his crescograph to study how plants reacted to specific kinds of light. Of course, he published his research in that as well.
In what extra time he had, Bose decided to try his hand at writing science fiction. His most famous work was Niruddesher Kahini, a story about controlling the weather in which a tornado is averted with a bottle of hair oil. That probably makes sense if you’re an altruistic genius.
Although he was underappreciated during his own time, Jagadish Chandra Bose has since been recognized for his work in both science and literature. He’s been honored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for his work with the radio, is respected by modern day users of the crescograph (although modern ones use electricity instead of clockwork), and is credited with being one of the fathers of Bengali science fiction. Perhaps he was showing off a bit.