From flame to flame

Subha Das Mollick

Father Eugene Lafont, a Jesuit priest from Belgium, came to Calcutta in 1865, after completing his theological studies at the Namur College, situated in an idyllic location at the confluence of two rivers. He joined St. Xavier’s College in Calcutta as a teacher of physical sciences and the Prefect of Discipline. Soon after joining, Fr. Lafont gave his first lecture in science to the students. It was an illustrated lecture aided by the magic lantern. The wonders of science opened up in front of the young audience. They were enthralled by pictures of galvanism and the Faraday’s Cage.

But for a student of science, simply sitting and listening was not enough. Science was all about doing. Fr. Lafont set about establishing the physical sciences laboratory in St. Xavier’s College. Those days even the prestigious Presidency College did not have a science laboratory. But Fr. Lafont was a master tinkerer. He was in his elements when he tinkered with gadgets and made them work wonders. On the prize distribution day of the college, Fr. Lafont set up a lighting system on the terrace so that bright electric light shone down on the drive way and illuminated the entrance path for the guests.

Eleven months later Fr. Lafont made headlines by predicting a cyclone with the mercury barometer set up in the laboratory. He noticed a dip in the mercury level and continued observing the fluctuating atmospheric pressure throughout the night of November 1, 1867 and the next morning too. He wrote later, “It was very interesting to see how sharply the instrument varies with each violent gust of wind”. The readings were a revelation to the students about the dynamics of a cyclone. The virtues of systematic observations as an essential scientific practice were established beyond any doubt.

Here was a man who could address the growing curiosity among Indians about science and its methods. Here was a man who could demonstrate to his students and the wider public that in science there was no substitute for experimentation and systematic observations.

On September 18, 1868, Fr. Lafont gave his first popular scientific demonstration to the public. Among other things, he showed the effect of a photo electric microscope, projected on a screen 12 ft in diameter. The newspapers hailed this lecture as a unique initiative. The public was hungry for more. The popular science lectures became a regular affair. People bought tickets for Re. 1/- to attend these lectures. Fr. Lafont continued these lectures till his death in 1908. The money collected through sale of tickets was utilized to make the science laboratory better equipped. He installed a seismometer in the laboratory.

On June 10, 1869, at 5 pm, a sharp shock of earthquake was felt by the Calcuttans. The oscillations recorded by Fr. Lafont were from east to west. Not much damage was done, but Calcuttans could not sleep for fear of another earthquake, till Fr. Lafont announced that the shocks were over. Fr. Lafont’s scientific endeavours were not confined in an ivory rower. These were meant for the people, in the service of the people.

December 9, 1874 had been predicted as the date for the transit of Venus across the Sun’s disc. There was excitement in the scientific community throughout the world. Fr. Lafont accompanied Prof. Tacchini to Madhupur to take the observations of the transit. Using equatorial refractors and carefully calibrated chronometers, he accurately noted the time of transit as 4 hours 41 minutes and 1.5 seconds. Prof. Tacchini was impressed. He persuaded Fr. Lafont to erect a spectro telescope at St. Xavier’s College. An appeal was made for funds. Construction of a solar observatory began in 1875.

The inauguration of the observatory in 1876 coincided with the admission into St. Xavier’s College of a boy named Jagadish Chandra Bose. He was deeply impressed by Lafont’s collection of instruments in the laboratory. Lafont saw a promising spark in this boy and took him under his wings. He allowed Jagadish to tinker with the instruments beyond the hours of classroom teaching. Jagadish helped Fr. Lafont when he set up a telephone line between the physics museum and the observatory. Jagadish understood how this wonder instrument converted sound vibrations into electrical currents at one end and the electrical currents faithfully reproduced the sound vibrations at the other end. He was struck by the fidelity of the reproductions. Many years later, he would use a telephone like this in one of his epoch making scientific instruments.

The four years Jagadish spent as a student in St. Xavier’s College shaped his scientific temperament. There was much to learn from the lectures, the demonstrations and from hours of observation of sunspots and solar flares at the observatory. The father of modern science in India was in the making. When Jagadish Bose graduated in 1880, Fr. Lafont wrote in the letter of recommendation:

St. Xavier’s College,
10 Park Street,
April 12, 1880

I certify that Baboo Jagadis Chunder Bose B.A. was my pupil in Physical Science for a period of four years and gave some proof of very great proficiency in that branch of study. I consider him to be one of the best students we had in our College Department.

E. Lafont S.J
Late Rector and Lecturer
St. Xavier’s College

After graduation Jagadish Bose went to Cambridge for higher studies in physics. There he got Lord Rayleigh as his teacher, whose inspiration and guidance contributed significantly to Bose’s professional growth as a scientist.

After returning from England in 1885, Jagadish Bose actively helped his guru of yesteryear in his science demonstrations. By now Father Lafont had joined hands with Dr. Mahendralal Sircar to form the Science Association. The Science Association actively promoted the study of science in Bengal. Jagadish Bose designed some original experiments to demonstrate the conversion of thermal and chemical energies into electricity. Applying Prof. Shyamadas Chatterjee’s ideas, he showed how sunlight may be converted into electricity. If one end of a tube of chlorophyll is kept in darkness and the other end exposed to sunlight and then the two ends are joined by a conductor, the ammeter in the circuit recorded a large flow of current.

In 1886, when Father Lafont started his lectures on acoustics, Jagadish Bose used Edison’s phonograph to record voices and then play them back. The newspapers reported, “Mr. Bose showed how easy it was to write by electricity”. Fifteen years later, in 1901, the Gramophone Company of India brought out the first gramophone record from their Dum Dum factory on the outskirts of Calcutta.

A brilliant teacher, aided by his brilliant student, brought the fruits of cutting edge scientific research in Europe to the scientifically curious public of Calcutta. In 1895, they demonstrated the penetrating power of Rontgen Rays. Jagadish Bose had read about William Rontgen’s discovery of X Rays in a scientific journal. He devised his own X Ray machine and took pictures of the bone structure inside the human body and coins kept in an opaque bag. The people of Calcutta flocked to see the penetrating power of these invisible rays.

Microwave apparatus

In 1884 Jagadish Bose joined the Presidency College as a lecturer. He was given a tiny 20 sq ft room to set up his laboratory. He took an illiterate tin smith as his assistant. Together they started work on an emerging new field, Radio science. Bose had read a book called The work of Hertz and his successors, written by Sir Oliver Lodge. Following James Clerk Maxwell’s theoretical prediction of electromagnetic waves, Henrich Hertz had, for the first time, produced electromagnetic waves in the laboratory. Now Bose got down to creating his own radio wave generator in his humble, sparsely equipped laboratory. He fabricated the coherer, dielectric lenses, microwave absorbers using blotting papers dipped in electrolytes and the galena detector. In 1895 he demonstrated the first wireless communication experiment at the Town Hall of Calcutta, in the presence of the Lt. Governor of Bengal. Bose transmitted electromagnetic waves from the lecture hall through intervening walls tripping a relay which threw a heavy iron ball, fired off a pistol and blew a small mine. Fr. Eugene Lafont assisted Bose in carrying out this experiment. The Lt. Governor of Bengal was impressed and arranged for a special annual grant of Rs. 2500/- to Jagadish Chandra Bose so that he could carry on his exemplary research.

The radio waves generated by Bose had wave lengths of the order of millimeters. He was able to transmit these waves across a distance of a mile, thus heralding a new mode of communication – radio communication. Papers based on this pioneering work were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society and Electrician. These publications caught the attention of the scientific community in England. Bose got an invitation from the Royal Institute in London to deliver a lecture. The topic of the lecture was “On the Polarization of Electric Ray”. Bose made significant modifications in his original setup and made it much more compact and portable. Bose’s lecture demonstration was greatly appreciated. Lord Kelvin was among the appreciative audience and probably there was a young man called Guglielmo Marconi.

In 1901, Marconi, an Italian inventor was successful in sending long wavelength radio waves across the Atlantic Ocean. He had used a galena detector in his setup, very similar to Bose’s galena detector.

When Jagadish Bose returned home in 1897, Fr. Lafont arranged for a special public lecture at St. Xavier’s College Hall on the topic Telegraphy Without Wires. Bose’s mentor and guru brought to public knowledge that Bose had successfully transmitted radio signals across a mile. When the success of Marconi’s trans- Atlantic transmission made headlines a few years later, the people of Calcutta knew that Bose’s experiment was a stepping stone for Marconi.

Father Lafont breathed his last in 1908. He did not live to see that his protégé had been deprived of the Nobel Prize in his path breaking discovery.

In 1909, Guglielmo Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contribution to radio communication. Jagadish Bose shifted his interest from physics to plant growth and plants’ response to stimuli. He opened up a new area of research called bio physics. Today Jagadish Chandra Bose is hailed as the Father of Modern Science in India.

1. Arun Kumar Biswas, Fr. Eugene Lafont of St. Xavier’s College, The Asiatic Society
2. Science and Culture: Special issue on Hundred Years of Microwave, January – February 1997
3. Desh, December 13, 1997

The author is a writer, teacher and documentary film maker. She is associated with an organization called Bichitra Pathshala that works to promote ‘learning with moving images’. She may be reached at