The Duke of Devonshire was at his wit’s end by 1874: what should he do with that box of old papers? They weren’t as interesting as his grandfather’s work on inflammable air (don’t ask) or how to weigh the earth, both of which had brought the old boy, Henry Cavendish, a certain measure of fame, but recycling bins were still a century off and the subject of the papers, electricity, was starting to interest the public. So with unusual prescience (for him) the Duke gave the box to James Clark Maxwell (foremost scientist of his day) and Maxwell was impressed enough to name a laboratory after Henry Cavendish: within forty-five short years, scientists working in a small back lane in Cambridge at the Cavendish Laboratory had untangled the mysteries of electromagnetism, isolated the neutron and the electron and in 1919 went the whole hog and split the atom.
The rest, as they say, is history…
It’s the equivalent of striking the first flint spark and going on to build a fully functioning internal combustion engine within half a lifetime, but that’s what scientific innovation is all about: chance decisions (like the Duke’s), resolute determination and, most of all, being in the right place at the right time.
And right now, according to the Global Innovation Index, the right place is Bangalore, Mumbai and India where innovation is running white hot. The subcontinent rocketed up the Global Index last year and currently ranks 15th in R&D Expenditure worldwide.
Francis Gurry, Director General of WIPO (which compiles the Index), had no doubt about the importance of the subcontinent’s Silicon Ghaatee: “India is now consistently ranked amongst the top countries in innovation worldwide” he gushed.
And when it comes to those other two Cavendish ingredients, chance decisions and resolute determination, well the Modi Administration might be short on the former (not being in the habit of leaving anything to chance) but they’re definitely long on resolute determination: having already worked remorselessly for years to make the subcontinent a Global Innovation Hub.
But don’t take WIPO’s word for it, or mine, take a look at the evidence: the Atal Innovation Project is already inspiring a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship across India with Atal labs dotted everywhere; the Mangalyaan mission to Mars saw India become the first Asian Nation to send a spacecraft into orbit around the red planet and, of course, Chandrayaan 2 is currently on its way to land an exploratory craft on the Moon: prompting Prime Minister Modi almost to burst with the pride and enthusiasm of a new father: “Indian scientists are second to none…they are the best. They are world-class”.
But who would be rash enough to disagree? After all, whatever our preferred holiday destination might be for Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, just how many US or UK spacecraft are currently on their way to the Moon? Does the UK even have a spacecraft?
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As a proud Indian living in London I am delighted by the technological achievements India has made over the last few years, and landing a craft on the moon within the next month will make me prouder still. When I was young and growing up in India none of that seemed possible, and now we have a craft in orbit around Mars!
But the steady process of day to day innovation and development is important too, and it’s difficult to underestimate the sustained work Prime Minister Modi and his predecessor have both put into making India a Global Technology Hub: day by day and step by step, they have inexorably helped move the country towards a new, technology-based economy that is infinitely better suited for the new millennium.
It’s nice to see that those efforts too have now been recognised.