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Sib Chandra Nundy: The Telegraph Man of India

27 August, 2021 11:46:04
Sib Chandra Nundy: The Telegraph Man of India

TJuly 15 2013, was a momentous day in the annals of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL), the government-owned telecommunications service provider in India. The day knelled the death toll of one of India’s oldest communication services — the telegram. From that day, the term “Post and Telegraph” service ceased to exist in India and only Postal Service remained. The service was used for sending urgent information and before the arrival of Trunk call in 1960; it was the fastest mode to send information over long distance.

In this era of new technological trends accompanying micro-electronics including digitalization, computerization, globalization of communication, instantization, customatization, automation, robotization, and leisurization – all have a profound and extensive effect in the sphere of communication. Very few remember the glorious history of Telegraph in India and the brilliance of Seebchunder Nandy or Sib Chandra Nundy, a valiant Bengali technocrat nicknamed the ‘Telegraph-man,’ associated with the laying down of Optical or Visual Telegraph line across the country. The lines extended over 400 miles from East Barrackpore to Allahabad, Benaras to Mirzapur, Mirzapur to Seowni, Calcutta to Dhaka.

William Brooke O'Shaughnessy is considered as the independent inventor of the electric telegraph in India. O'Shaughnessy, MD FRS was an Irish physician famous for his wide-ranging scientific work in pharmacology, chemistry, and inventions related to telegraphy. He came to Calcutta in 1835 as an Assistant Surgeon of the East India Company and joined Calcutta Medical College as the Professor of Chemistry. He served on the committee of the Materia Medica until 1840 and later was Chemical Examiner to the government. He was also the Deputy Assay Master of the Calcutta Mint and the Joint-Secretary to the Asiatic Society of Bengal. In 1839, a large ship named ‘Equitable’ drowned near ‘Falta Sands and this created movement of other ships on the route. O'Shaughnessy stuffed gunpowder in the drowned ship and using electricity charge, blasted the ship.  The ship was torn into smithereens. 

Another incident occurred in the same year.  In 1839, O'Shaughnessy conducted experiments on an experimental telegraphy system that he set up in the Botanical Garden at Calcutta. A length of 22 miles of wire was laid by zigzagging them over bamboo posts. He succeeded but the project had to be stalled because the East India Company refused to sanction funds for the next phase of the project. O'Shaughnessy had to wait for the next 10 years and before the nod was given to resume his work.  By 1851, within 10 months of approval, O'Shaughnessy and his team succeeded in completing the first phase of the electrification work. Two pieces of the first telegraphic line are still preserved at the Victoria Memorial Museum and Birla Industrial and Technological Museum in Kolkata. 

It was O'Shaughnessy who discovered Sib Chunder Nundy. Nundy was involved with the telegraph installation project right from its inception. Being a man of sound technical expertise, Sib Nundy soon earned the trust of his boss. When in 1850, the first line between Calcutta (Alipore to be precise) and Diamond Harbour was planned, Nundy was roped in by O'Shaughnessy and made in charge of the workshop.

After electric telegraph system was introduced, the need for electrical components increased and electrical engineering emerged as a new specialized profession. Sib Chunder Nundy is rightly referred to as the first Indian electrical engineer, not based on his degree but for his creativity and professional excellence. When O'Shaughnessy started working on the first telegraphic line in India, he took Nundy as his assistant. Entrusted with the responsibility of constructing 900 miles of line connecting Calcutta, Allahabad, Benaras, Mirzapur and Dacca, Nundy successfully completed the job. After the overhead lines got completed, the challenge was to lay underwater cables crossing the turbulent river Padma. As the steamer companies quoted an exorbitant rate of Rs 10,000/- Nundy utilised fishing boats to finish the seven-mile submarine cable deal at a minimal cost. Nundy was applauded for his daring feat. 

Telegraph Morse Code

Once Nundy went to inspect and area and select a spot for installing a telegraph post. He was so engrossed in is work that he accidentally stepped on quicksand and started drowning. His colleagues noticed him and pulled him out. In another incident, he got close enough for a python to devour him but again he managed to flee. His efficiency and quick rise in ranks was not liked by his detractors, comprising a number of British soldiers who conspired to murder him but Nundy was a sharp-witted man who busted the plot. 

He was not only intelligent, adventurous and efficient but had a creative bent of mind who could channelize his knowledge in the right direction. In those day, iron rods and copper wires had to be imported from Great Britain. The entire process was very lengthy and time consuming. Nundy devised to use palm trees as posts when he was given charge to lay down 900 miles of cable through East Barrakur-Allahabad, Banares-Mirzapur-Seonee, and Calcutta to Dacca. Use of palm tree as a post was later incorporated into the Telegraph manual. He had designed cost effective power systems and some of his drawings are preserved in Delhi’s National Archives. In this context Nundy wrote a letter to O'Shaughnessy:

“…I have to this day forwarded to your address at Agra drawings of the Toddy palm-posts with their various insulators in the various methods in which I have used them for your lines, together with that of an obelisk lately erected at Dehree, as well as those proposed for the flying line across the Soane River and one for Baroon.”

O'Shaughnessy was on leave during 1857 and Colonel Stewart was officiating. When the when the Sepoy Mutiny started, Stewart too was out of station due to construction of telegraph lines in Ceylon. It was then Nundy, acting as the head of the Telegraph department, ensured a secure communication between Calcutta and Bombay.  Nundy was promoted to the post of Assistant Superintendent in 1866 and retired on special pension in 1884. Immediately before his retirement, in 1883, the year in which Telegraph department merged with the Postage department, he was awarded with the title of Rai Bahadur and post-retirement he was made an Honorary Magistrate. Nundy breathed his last at his residence on April 9,1903 due to bubonic plague epidemic in Calcutta. Calcutta Corporation named a by-lane after him in 1904 as a mark of respect.  The brilliant technocrat’s name shines as the only flicker from a glorious past. 

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