The cooker affair: A cautionary tale of using science for political ends

In this extract from the book 'Midnight's Machines', Arun Mohan Sukumar asks the question, was it ambition or naïveté, or both, that nudged scientists towards unviable projects like the solar cooker?

Arun Mohan Sukumar

On 21 March 1952, India awoke to news that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had eaten cabbage and steamed vegetables for dinner. This was no ordinary meal. Nehru, the Times of India dutifully reported, had savoured ‘sun-cooked’ vegetables the previous night, thanks to a solar cooker installed in the Prime Minister’s residence by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). These cookers, designed by the NPL and expected to soon move to commercial production, would cost Rs 50 a piece, and use no fuel but the sun’s rays. The newspaper report also suggested private firms were lining up to receive contracts from the NPL for this cutting-edge device. Four years later, with neither the cooker nor the promised solar revolution in sight, the same newspaper’s editorial would declare that the ‘utter failure’ of the cooker did ‘little credit either to the scientific equipment or the common sense of those who allowed themselves to be swept off their feet’. The solar cooker was written off as independent India’s first technological sham, calling into question the credibility of the political leadership and the reputation of many in the scientific establishment.

With the wisdom of hindsight, the solar cooker controversy could perhaps be seen as a well-intentioned attempt by the Indian state to deliver modern amenities to its newly independent citizens. The project did not sink careers at the National Physical Laboratory: on the contrary, it offered great visibility to young scientists like Madan Lal Ghai, NPL’s assistant director and the head of its Solar Energy Experiments division. Ghai, a twenty-eight-year old with a PhD in mechanical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, would return to the United States, clocking miles on the conference circuit and introducing the solar cooker to Western scientists. But the ‘cooker affair’, as it was known in New Delhi, destroyed whatever rosy-eyed view remained of indigenous technology: by one account, the ensuing embarrassment set back applied science ‘by at least a decade’. For India’s vaunted scientists at the NPL, its mothership, CSIR, and elsewhere, the episode was a cautionary tale against channelling science for political ends. Doyens of the scientific community, for whom a fellowship at the Royal Society in London was till then the ultimate goal, realized that public attention came with accountability and stinging criticism when projects failed. With little or no experience helming large organizations, they found it easier to retreat to the confines of their laboratory than test risky products again.

The first known prototype of a solar cooker was used in India in 1878 by William Adams, then a deputy registrar at the Bombay High Court, to cook ‘meat and potatoes for seven soldiers’ in the British Army. During his detention in Patna Jail in 1944, Rajendra Prasad reportedly saw a first-hand demonstration of the cooker from a fellow prisoner, capturing the interest of India’s soon-to-be President. The NPL would later receive a prototype from Prasad, which, as a ‘token of deference’, was used not for cooking but only to keep food warm. Prasad requested Sir Jehangir Ghandy of the Tata Steel to provide all necessary support for the product’s development. The solar cooker was no longer an obscure contraption: the weight of the Indian political establishment, its scientific community and the private sector’s considerable resources were brought to bear on its manufacturing. Why did so many smart people invest in a technology that was doomed to fail?

From the start, the solar cooker’s feasibility seemed in doubt. A columnist who visited the NPL’s facilities in 1952 wondered whether the cooker’s ‘modest achievement’—warming coffee for the lab’s scientists—would translate into any actual use. The project did not appear to have any scientific basis. To simulate conditions in rural India, for instance, NPL scientists, bizarrely, let the cooker’s aluminium concave reflectors collect dust and lose their shine. Above all, the cooker was prohibitively expensive. At Rs 50 (then equivalent to the princely sum of $16), the cooker was beyond the reach of the rural market for which it was intended. And finally, it was not attuned to village life. Even the cooker’s makers acknowledged it would be useless for an early breakfast or just after sunrise, when most labourers and farmhands would head out for the day’s work.

Despite these problems, the Indian government promoted the product as a genuine, homegrown innovation. For the political leadership, the solar cooker symbolized India’s imminent strides in technology, made possible thanks to the setting up of scientific institutions and laboratories across the country. Formidable figures like Nehru and Prasad endorsed it, backed by great minds like Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, the director of CSIR. Shiv Visvanathan, who chronicled the CSIR in the eighties, notes that the solar cooker was Bhatnagar’s ‘pride and brainchild’. Bhatnagar would claim that the innovation had caused a ‘worldwide stir’ before quietly abandoning the project. It is unclear whether Bhatnagar and his contemporaries at the National Physical Laboratory were trying to amplify the publicity around India’s technological prowess, or whether they genuinely believed the solar cooker was a scaleable product. In any event, they played along, to disastrous consequences.

News of the solar cooker naturally caught the attention of the world, with the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC and the Christian Science Monitor all breathlessly reporting the development. The Smithsonian labs in the United States, led by Charles G. Abbott, had previously developed a solar cooker prototype but unlike the Indian variant, was unable to produce it for the market. Meanwhile, NPL’s Ghai made a strong case for the technology among researchers, arguing the cooker’s viability in prestigious scientific journals. Ghai also pitched the idea at a solar energy conference in Wisconsin, in the presence of scientists from MIT and Abbott himself. Eventually, the notion that the sun could be ‘harvested’ for small-scale, daily uses like cooking in the Third World became so popular that it found its way in 1954 to President Eisenhower’s administration. The United States created a ‘solar energy group’ with scientists from developing countries, including India, to study its practical uses. Homi Bhabha—Bhatnagar’s peer and by then, one of the foremost physicists of his generation—also noted the solar cooker’s potential to rid India’s agrarian community of its reliance on cow dung. Rarely had the post-war world devoted so much energy, intellect and money to an idea whose time had yet to come.

Back home, India’s politicians basked in the product’s popularity. Under the aegis of the United Nations, India hosted the first Symposium on Wind and Solar Energy in 1954, to much fanfare. K.D. Malaviya, Union minister of state for natural resources and scientific research, declared India’s solar innovations would balance the ‘inequitable distribution of knowledge’, which was necessary for a modern existence. New Delhi even ‘gave away’ the solar cooker’s design to Egypt, probably the first instance of (free) technology transfer between developing countries. The government of Southern Rhodesia ordered four cookers from India to examine if they could be possible alternatives to wood-fired stoves. As a commentator wryly noted later, ‘The order was never repeated.’

Over the next three years, however, it dawned on everyone involved that the solar cooker was a no-starter. Cooking with the contraption was a labour-intensive affair, with limited results to show for it. Although reports emerged of units being sold in the thousands, very little evidence was at hand of the cooker’s adoption in rural India. The historian D.D. Kosambi, himself a votary of solar energy but a vocal critic of the cooker, declared that the only party to have profited from the whole enterprise was the contracting company, which sold the cooker parts for scrap.

The solar cooker’s failure was a pivotal moment, dimming, as it did, the prospects for homemade technological advancement. One could, of course, mount a credible defence of the project, based on the potential it held for the Indian economy of the fifties. The extensive use of cow dung in rural India for cooking had limited availability as manure and fertilizer, a resource that solar cookers were expected to free up. For a country that relied almost entirely on imported crude for fuel in homes and factories, policy planners estimated that the widespread use of solar cookers for domestic use would also save foreign exchange. And finally, India was a natural market for the solar cooker, with most of its geography receiving abundant sunshine through the year. However, the haste to deliver results proved to be the project’s undoing, rewriting with it the relationship between the Indian state, scientist and citizen.

The solar cooker’s failure brought disrepute to the NPL, from which it never quite recovered. Bhatnagar passed away in 1954, leaving not only the NPL’s day-to-day affairs but also its strategic planning to K.S. Krishnan, its director. Krishnan, an academic at heart, never got over the solar cooker fiasco: in the words of a colleague, he withdrew ‘into a shell, and went off anything technological’. At the time of his retirement and death in 1961, the NPL was a very different animal from the one that Nehru had sold to the country. By the late sixties, a survey of scientists in the NPL’s parent organization, the CSIR, would reveal more than half of them wanted to leave their jobs and move abroad. NPL’s relevance was questioned all the way up to Parliament, leading the government to institute a review in 1963 under the leadership of Nobel Prize–winning physicist Patrick Blackett.

The Blackett report was the subject of much public discussion in India, even if its author himself emphasized it was only a ‘scientific review’ and not a witch hunt in the NPL. Most questions around the solar cooker controversy and the subsequent crises at the NPL were eminently political in nature. Had India placed too much faith in its scientists to deliver quickly to meet the needs of the nation? Or had Indian politicians erred in believing that the rigours of scientific research could be done away with in the case of industrial applications? Given that the most distinguished scientists in India, Bhatnagar and Bhabha, were also secretaries to the government and reporting directly to the Prime Minister, it was impossible to separate larger political considerations from an institutional assessment of the country’s laboratories. In any event, the Blackett report and the government’s own review of the report would come to the same conclusion, both equally critical of the NPL’s working.

The poor administration of India’s prestigious research laboratories was only a symptom. The Blackett report diagnosed familiar problems: difficulty in attracting and retaining Indian talent from foreign universities, maintaining a healthy balance in national labs between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science; establishing links between state-funded research and private businesses that could implement R&D; and cultivating in scientists a mindset conducive to policy planning. The Blackett report was certainly not the first to identify these problems: ‘brain drain’ had been extensively debated since the time of Independence. Still, the report did not get to the heart of the matter: was it ambition or naïveté, or both, that nudged scientists towards unviable projects like the solar cooker?

The botched attempt to produce a solar cooker harks back to an earlier era, when Indian science seemed invulnerable. Leading scholars of the time were appointed to the helm of Indian laboratories and their competence was mistaken for those of the institutions they headed. Scientific establishments in India had the strong support of no less a person than the Prime Minister himself. Jawaharlal Nehru’s faith in science, as this book has noted, came from a deeply personal and philosophical conviction. His close association with renowned scientists, both at home and abroad, and his efforts to instil ‘scientific temper’ in the country, have now entered popular lore. Blackett, a close friend of Nehru, would remark:

“Considering the amount he had to do, running a country of that size, the amount of time [Nehru] spent with us [scientists] was indeed surprising [. . .] He believed in science in a rather naive way. We all did at the time. It was enormously valuable that he should put science first in making Indians scientifically minded. But science is only part of a game and the real effect of science comes from producing wealth.”

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[This excerpt from ‘Midnight's Machines: A Political History of Technology in India' by Arun Mohan Sukumar has been reproduced with permission from Penguin Random House]

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About the author

Arun Mohan Sukumar
Arun Mohan Sukumar

Author, lawyer, and cyber security expert

Arun Mohan Sukumar is a PhD candidate at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He is the author of Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India, published in November 2019 by Penguin Random House. Arun is a lawyer by training, and graduated from NALSAR, Hyderabad. He headed the Technology Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, India’s biggest think-tank, between 2015 and 2019. Arun was a member of the multi-stakeholder group set up by India’s National Security Advisor in 2017 on ‘cyber norms’, or rules of conduct for states and businesses in cyberspace. He has been a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Digital Economy and Society (2016-2019).

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