Technological Indian

MITNehruIn recent years, India sent a space probe to orbit Mars; Indian-born engineers were named chief executives of two top technology firms in the world. For most of the 20th century, when the very idea of a high-tech India seemed improbable, the foundation was actually being laid to make the dream a reality.

In his new book The Technological Indian American science historian Ross Bassett, who analyzed the careers of 850 Indians who earned engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) between 1880 and 2000, looks at their outsize contributions to India’s technological destiny.

So Indians discovered MIT in the 19th century?

Indians had been going to MIT since 1882, far longer than I would have thought. Bal Kalelkar, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, wrote in 1940 that he was not seeking a MIT doctorate in engineering for personal glory but “to serve our motherland through my profession and to see her in a better position.” Many went with the desire to develop skills that would help build up the Indian nation.

The graduates who came back in the 1940s and 1950s were precious commodities in helping India to develop its technological infrastructure.

Scions of business families went to MIT too.

 Yes. Perhaps the closest connection was between the Birla family and MIT. G. D. Birla got the institute to assist in developing the Birla Institute of Technology and Science into a premier engineering institute, a private version of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). Birla’s grandson Aditya studied chemical engineering at MIT in preparation for taking a leading role in the family business. S. L. Kirloskar went to MIT, as did members of the Lalbhai, Godrej, and Chauhan (Parle Products) families.

Tell us about the son of an employee of the House of Tatas who put India on the world’s steel plant engineering map.

N. Dastur, whose father was a clerk at Tata’s steel company in Jamshedpur, had worked as an engineer at the steel plant himself. Then, funded by a Tata scholarship, he went to MIT, where he earned a doctorate in metallurgy in 1949. He worked with one of the world’s leading steel consultants at their office in New York City. After his return to India in the 1950s, he went on to play a particularly important role in building up India’s technological capacity.

As India looked to the Soviet Union, West Germany, and Great Britain to help it build steel mills, he argued that Indians could design steel mills more cheaply that were better suited for the Indian environment. He found a great ally in Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and established a steel consulting business. His firm was scheduled to design the great steel mill at Bokaro, but the Soviet Union offered to finance the mills construction if their design was used. Dastur and his firm provided India with a wealth of steel expertise and gained global recognition.

And some MIT graduates created the information technology (IT) industry in India. How did that happen?

In the 1950s and 1960s, MIT was ahead of all US universities in computer technology. A number of Indians who went to MIT then got exposed to computer technology simply because working at a computer center was a way they could fund their education. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) was started by three MIT graduates and then later led by another MIT graduate, F. C. Kohli. Narendra Patni started another early IT venture and he was also an MIT graduate. The team he assembled later left to form Infosys, so MIT was indirectly involved in it.

Does the institute have a connection to India’s space program as well?

 Brahm Prakash, who did a doctorate in metallurgy from MIT, came back and served as the first head of the department of metallurgy at IISc. Then, he was as a key lieutenant to Homi Bhabha in the atomic energy program, and later led the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center in Trivandrum. During that time India developed the SLV3 launch vehicle, which put the country’s first satellite into orbit in 1980. He was a mentor to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the project manager for the SLV-3.

In the 1960s, when immigration policies became favorable to Indians, MIT graduates began to work for big name research labs. Did some become entrepreneurs?

One of the first really successful Indian entrepreneurs in the US was Suhas Patil, who founded Cirrus Logic in Silicon Valley in 1981. He is a cofounder of TiE, the Indus Entrepreneurs, which mentors other entrepreneurs.

Silicon Valley personality Vivek Ranadive, who did his undergraduate studies at MIT, says his fascination with America began when he heard the Apollo moon landing on the radio as a 12-year-old. In 2009, the tech entrepreneur gained fame as a middle school basketball coach. His daughter’s team, which did not have too many skilled players, stuck to a stratagem and won games. Ranadive, who came to the U.S. with only $50 in his pocket, became a local hero when he bought Sacramento Kings and kept the NBA team in the city.

 In post-liberalization India, do MIT graduates tend to return home?

For Indians who had graduated from MIT in engineering since 2000, while more of them return to India, the vast majority stays in the United States, often taking positions either in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street.  The technological India is a citizen of the world.