Electric experiments in the Gardens of Tranquebar and the Halls of Tanjore



A consortium of Indian and Danish research institutions are currently working to make tomorrow’s electric power grid intelligent and green. This technology points to the future, but Indo-Danish collaboration in the field of science and technology has a long history. In fact, more than two centuries ago Indians and Danes carried out electric experiments together in Tranquebar (Tharangambadi) on the Coromandel Coast.

In late April 1810, electrical sparks flew under the shady trees in the garden of the Danish-Halle Mission outside the walls of Tranquebar. The mission doctor Johann Gottfried Klein was working with the Brahmin Soobrow, a leading scholar of the princely court of Tanjore (Thanjavur), to carry out experiments in physics with an electricity machine. They had already made other experiments with an air pump and a ‘chemical apparatus’. Electricity dominated natural philosophy in the late eighteenth century and at the turn of the nineteenth, and this was why the ruler of Tanjore, Raja Serfoji II, had sent Soobrow to Tranquebar.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Raja Serfoji II made Tanjore a South Indian centre of science. He created a number of institutions to facilitate the production and dissemination of new and useful knowledge for the benefit of his subjects. Among the institutions were botanical gardens, a menagerie of rare animals, a pharmacy, libraries, printing presses, schools and a college. Scientific networks were extremely important in the process of making these institutions and one of these networks included an older centre of science in the south: Tranquebar.

Tranquebar had been a local south Indian hub of science since the first part of the eighteenth century. When it was most active in the period c. 1768-1813, it contained a range of scientific institutions including botanical gardens, an astronomical and meteorological observatory, a scientific society, collections of specimens of botany, zoology and entomology, collections of books and manuscripts, and schools. The most important and enduring institution in these scientific pursuits was the Lutheran Danish-Halle Mission, yet the Danish-Norwegian state and the Moravian Mission were also active participants.

It was because of the shared interests of Tanjore and Tranquebar in science, education and enlightenment that Soobrow was sent to work with Dr Klein in the Mission Garden. Thus, the Brahmin came to personify the continuous exchange of scientific information, practical skills and objects that moved between and via the two centres; a steady stream of books, plants, animals, scientific apparatus, manuscripts, collectors, gardeners, doctors etc.

And so, when Indian and Danish researchers today work together to distribute electricity in more sustainable ways they continue a long tradition of fruitful exchanges and mutual inspiration.

Periode20 sep. 2020 → 21 sep. 2020