Zoos and the Sense of Wonder

Cheetahs at Oakland Zoo. Picture: Oakland Zoo site

Oakland Zoo is celebrating its annual Glowfari Festival through November, December and January. This year, the highlights include ‘a walkabout through the land down under with kangaroos and koalas, icons of the California coastline including whales, otters, and jellies, exotic animals of the tropical rainforest, and a trip to the past with a towering T-Rex and a megalodon shark tunnel!’ Ok, apart from the t-rex and megalodon shark, that’s not very usual for a zoo, right? Well, not till you learn that these are not real animals that the visitors will see but hundreds of huge hand-painted animal lanterns  placed throughout the zoo’s campus, making for a totally unique tour of the zoo by night. The spectacular lanterns are arranged throughout a mile-long pathway. They glow in the dark, turning the zoo into a fairyland. The tag line of the fest is ‘A Wildly Illuminating Lantern Festival’.

Sean Kenney’s Lego Butterfly

Some years ago, a New York based artist Sean Kenney toured several zoos and botanical gardens in the US with over 150 life size and larger-than-life size sculptures of animals and plants made with, hold your breath, Lego blocks! Lego blocks are this artist’s chosen medium. who turned his The largest sculptures took up to nine months to construct. The pieces are set in place as per a master-plan, and glued tother. A lion, for example, took 474 construction hours and Lego 48,248 bricks to build.

Brevard Zoo currently has an exhibition called ‘Life Beneath our Sea’ which displays a dozen giant sand sculptures hand-crafted by world-class artists using over 500 tonnes of sand, which is bringing the beauty of underwater scenes to the viewers.

These are just a few examples of innovative programmes being done by zoos to attract visitors, bring the beauty of wonder of nature to them, and educate them.

It is well recognized that experiences with animals and educational elements can increase zoo visitors’ motivation to take conservation action, and this is why zoos place so much emphasis on educational initiatives.

San Diego Zoo, probably the top-rated zoo in the world, has developed curricula on a number of topics that can be taught through a combination of classroom activities, along with activities to be done during a visit to the zoo. The topics range from the Panda curriculum to the Wildcats curriculum to Animal Adaptations to the Australian Outback curriculum. They also organize field trips with guides for schools, opportunities to get close to small animals, safari park guided field trips, special early morning trips and even sleepovers at the safari park!

The Singapore Zoo has specific programmes for various levels, from pre-school to primary school to secondary school. They also have professional development programmes for teachers. These are very structured experiences. For instance, one of the education programmes offered to secondary students ‘Fragile Forest’ helps them get a multi-dimensional experience of life in a rainforest ecosystem. It includes a walk amidst fascinating flora and coming face to face with lemurs, bats, butterflies, birds, tarantulas, snails, millipedes, etc. This tour also demonstrates the importance of rainforests to our lives, and ways individuals can help to save them.

And it is not just children that zoo education caters to. Many zoos like the Smithsonian offer internships for adults and senior students, and encourage volunteering.  

A number of zoos pivoted during COVID to offer virtual zoo experiences, including pre-recorded virtual Zoo tours, online classes allowing children to personally interact with Zoo educators and virtually meet several animal ambassadors up close. Some Zoos like the Taronga Zoo, run an educational TV channel, with new videos releasing every week. Other zoos offer virtual guided tours through the Zoo Commissary, Vet Hospital, and behind the scenes Aquarium.

Yet other zoos offer educational kits like exhibit design kits, , biological artefacts (i.e. skulls, feathers, shells, etc), and materials to conduct conservation learning games.

India too places emphasis on zoo education. The Central Zoo Authority got Centre for Environment Education to develop a Zoo Education Masterplan—a 330 page document which provides zoos in India a detailed way-forward on the why, what and how of education at such facilities.

Lets hope zoos across the world are able to effectively use education to support conservation.


Angela Ruiz Robles: eBook Pioneer

What is it that would help to lighten the weight of school bags, is portable, makes learning more attractive and adapts teaching to the level of each student; can be used in the dark, supports learning with sounds, can be used in multiple languages, can be a useful teaching aid for teachers?

Today most school children can easily answer this as a “Tablet”. But this list, and this vision of such a teaching-learning device was made over 75 years ago, and resulted in an invention called Mechanical Encyclopedia. The inventor was Angela Ruiz Robles–a Spanish school teacher. 

Angela’s story is fascinating and inspirational.

Angela Ruiz Robles was born on 28 March 1895, in Villamanin, a municipality in the province of Leon in Spain. Her father Feiciano Ruiz was a pharmacist and her mother Elena Robles a housewife. Angela completed her higher education at the teacher training college in Leon, and went on to teach shorthand, typing and business at the same college from 1915 to 1916. In 1917 she was a teacher and director at the Gilberto Gordón School in Gordón, a town located near the city of León.

In 1918 she accepted a position as teacher in Santa Eugenia de Mandía, a village near Ferrol in Galicia, and remained there for the next decade. It is here that she found her true calling as a teacher. She was totally dedicated to her students, giving personal attention to each one; noting those who required special attention according to their needs. Her work was not confined to the classroom; she visited the homes of her students to provide additional instruction and support. She understood that every child has unique learning abilities, personalities and insecurities. As her old students recalled: “Doña Angelita, who was known by her first name to all of us, was the perfect teacher. She never treated any student differently and always honoured each individual learner’s needs.” Angela spent ten years in the village school and was greatly loved and respected by all.

Angela lost her husband when she was 40, and in 1928 she moved to Ferrol. She needed to teach, but now also to provide for her family. She founded the Elmaca Academy named after her daughters Elena, Maria Elvira, and Carmen. The Academy located in her own home provided classes for those aspiring to join customs, become mail carriers, or telegraph operators, as well as apply for business management studies. Her academy followed participatory pedagogical methods that were much ahead of their time; and this was reflected in the highest pass rate in the country for her students.

Along with the regular courses Doña Angelita gave free night classes to people with few resources. The Academy also became a social centre. Letters were read to, and written for illiterate immigrants; literary gatherings were held; food distribution was organized, and religious processions could be watched from here.

In 1934, she became manager of the Escuela Nacional de Niñas del Hospicio (National Girls’ School of the Hospice) in Ferrol, which cared for orphaned or abandoned girls. Doña Angelita made sure that the girls got a primary education, musical education and learned a useful trade so that they could earn and integrate with society.

As Doña Angelita continued her teaching and other educational work, she also had to support and bring up her three young girls by herself, but she made time for her own research and writing. Between 1938 and 1946, she wrote, lectured, edited and republished sixteen books. She published three of them: Compendium of Castilian Orthography, Castilian Orthography (abbreviated) and Modern Abbreviated Martinian Shorthand—books addressing the conventional Spanish spelling systems. In 1944, Ángela Ruiz started her Scientific-Grammatical Atlas project. Her goal was to teach Spanish grammar and spelling while making Spain better known through Spanish grammar, syntax, morphology, spelling and phonetics.

Angela Ruiz was also constantly thinking of resources, innovations, and inventions that would help to improve the teaching-learning process, and spent hours after her daily work in exploring and experimenting with such tools. Her aim was simple: “To make teaching easier, to get maximum knowledge with minimum effort.”

It was then that she dreamed of what she described as a “Mechanical Encyclopaedia” which addressed the needs listed in the first paragraph of this piece. This book included a vast range of information which was represented in graphic, sound or textual form. It could be made of waterproof and lightweight materials. It had the possibility of directly incorporating lighting and magnifying glasses.

Her invention consisted of patterned sheets. When you put your finger on them, they lit up and an educational text appeared. For this to happen, she incorporated an electrical circuit that she designed herself.

Angela made a sketch and detailed out her new kind of book which she described as “a mechanical, electrical, and air pressure procedure for reading books“. She was certain that her invention was a valuable educational tool and she went to Madrid to find promoters. Her invention was appreciated, but did not result in any funding for her to develop the patent. Angela was disappointed, but undeterred she continued to work on improving her invention.

On 10 April 1962, ten years after her first attempt, she filed a patent entitled An Apparatus for Various Readings and Writings. That prototype made of zinc and bronze was the Mechanical Encyclopedia. Today this prototype is exhibited at the National Museum of Science and Technology in A Coruña in Spain.

With that physical prototype, she once again undertook the rounds of different ministries in Madrid. Again the previous story was repeated: many pats on the back, but not a single penny. After all she was a woman, and a provincial school teacher, how could her invention be taken seriously? Angela continued her efforts until she was almost 75 years old, but she was unable to develop or distribute her inventions.

Today writer and philanthropist Michael Hart is best known as the inventor of the e-book, and in 1971, he created the Gutenberg Project, the first project to make e-books freely available via the internet. Sadly, forgotten in history books is the name of Angela Ruiz Robles, a passionate and dedicated teacher, and the original pioneer of the electronic book.


Going to the Zoo

As a child in Delhi, one of the major highlights of the year was a visit to the Zoo. And if we were lucky enough to have guests from out of town with children, it was a bonanza year, because the zoo would be on the itinerary for the guests, and we could go along too. The birds visiting the wetlands which are a major part of Delhi Zoo; the lions, tigers, elephants, zebras; the mischievous monkeys, the exotic zebras and giraffes—these were our only encounters with creatures that we otherwise only saw in 2-d in books. And from such visits grew our wonder at the world of nature and our love for it.

And that indeed is one of the stated purposes of zoos—to introduce visitors to nature and to lay the foundation for a conservation ethic. As India’s Central Zoo Authority (CZA) sums up, the objectives of zoos are:

‘CONSERVATION: To be involved in programs which assist the survival of wild populations of animals. This is often done in partnership with other organisations.

EDUCATION: To increase the level of awareness, knowledge and understanding of visitors about animals, the environment and conservation, and to motivate behaviour change which will help the environment.

RESEARCH: To conduct and facilitate research on animals both in captivity and in the wild, with particular emphasis on threatened species.

RECREATION: To provide enjoyment and enrichment for visitors through close contact with living things.’

I spent two decades of my career as an environmental educator, and zoo education was something I was involved in at some stage. I still carried the deep impacts of my childhood zoo experiences and worked with a passion to make zoo visits more educational, striving to sow the seeds of love, respect and care for the environment, nature and animals.


But last week, I took a 4-year old to the Bannerghatta Zoo and Safari Park. She liked it. But I saw nothing like the excitement and wonder I remember feeling as a child. She was reasonably excited when she saw lions and tigers and bears close up during the safari. And then during the walk through the zoo, she did like the zebras and monkeys and giraffes, but I could see that she was disappointed that they were just standing there, not ‘doing’ anything. And then when we saw a herd of elephants, she could not see the baby-elephants clearly, which she was not happy about. And as she walked through the zoo, she was tired and hot and cranky. All in all, if my childhood zoo visits were an 11/10, hers was a 7/10.

I got to thinking why. And then I realized that she had the wildest and most remote of habitats and the most exotic of animals at her fingertips. She just had to switch channels in the comfort of home to see lion cubs playing with their mother’s tail; elephants mud-bathing; kingfishers swooping in for a fish catch; tigers chasing a deer. No wonder the physical sights were not so exciting.

I still believe that zoo-visits have a major role to play in nature education. But obviously, it cannot be business as usual. While zoos in India are making some efforts to make onsite education more exciting, there are international zoos which have taken this to new levels of innovation, immersion and interaction. Next week I will share some interesting and really cutting-edge programmes.

India has 145 recognized zoos in India as per CZA. Pre-Covid estimates indicate that zoos are one of the highest visited public spaces, with over 8 crore visitors every year. Zoos are still the most accessible way to see animals for real–national park and sanctuary visits are expensive and time-taking. We cannot lose this opportunity of zoo-visits to set off positive action for the environment.  And to do so effectively means we must understand the challenges that new media poses to traditional visit experience, as well as recognize the exciting opportunities it offers.


The Tree Pies Are Here!

The last couple of weeks we have been hearing a new addition to the usual morning symphony of bird calls in our garden. This new sound was different—a somewhat harsh and raucous intermittent call. The other birds fall silent while this fills the air. As we looked for the source of sound, at first we could not see anything except the familiar babblers and doves and crows going about their morning business, until a rustling among the drying leaves of the tall old palm tree caused us to look closer. Suddenly we saw a hitherto unknown bird emerge and perch on the branch. Another swoop brought its partner flying from beyond to perch next to it. The first thing that struck us was the striking colouring and long tail that set these birds apart from the more staid and dull-hued birds that usually frequented the tree.

Rufous treepie
Rufous treepie

The tree-pies were in the neighbourhood! Last year they had caused a similar excitement when we had spotted them one day, but sadly that was only a one-time sighting, and we did not see them again. This time it seemed as if they were seriously prospecting the tree as a suitable site for potentially settling in to nest and breed.  

The Rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) belongs to the Corvidae family, to which also belongs the common crow. The bird is endemic to the Indian subcontinent, and it is found in open forests, woodlands, groves and gardens in cities and villages. This species is not found elsewhere.

The body of the bird is the size of a myna, but it is elongated with a long tail which distinguishes it. The body is rust orange, with an ashy-black head and breast. The tail feathers are black interspersed with light grey, and the wing feathers are black with a white-grey band down the outside. The beak, legs and feet are black; the eyes are deep red with black pupils. The beak is slightly hooked at the tip.  With such striking colouring, the tree pie makes quite a contrast to its relative, the common crow, with its monochromatic colouring.

What this bird does share with its Corvid family kin is the attraction to shiny objects. Tree pies look for and steal shiny objects such as coins and small jewellery, and stash these in their nest. Possibly a male ploy to attract the females! No wonder then that one of the local Indian names for this bird is taka chor, literally ‘coin stealer’. The bird is also called kotri, derived from one of its calls which sounds like a screeching ‘ko-tree’.

The tree pie indeed has quite a repertoire of calls—from the loud, harsh and guttural to some which are sweet and melodious like ko-tree or bob-o-link. Thus it is confusing when one looks for the source of the squawking call, only to find a melodious tune emanating from the same place. It makes one wonder if it is one bird or several different ones calling.

The tree pie is an arboreal bird, rarely seen on the ground. It is an agile climber and hops agilely from branch to branch, or flies from tree to tree with a swift noisy flapping followed by a short glide on out stretched wings.

The rufous tree pie is an omnivorous and opportunistic feeder. Its diet includes fruits, seeds, small lizards, insects, as well as the eggs of other birds, and even small birds and rodents. In the forest tree pies often join mixed hunting groups of birds like drongos and woodpeckers; they collectively disturb insects in tree canopies and feast on them. 

Tree pies make their nests concealed in the foliage of middle-sized trees. The nest resembles that of its cousin the crow, made of thorny twigs, but it is deeper and well-lined with rootlets. It is here that 4-5 eggs are laid, and when they hatch both male and female share the parental duties.

A fortnight has passed since we heard the first harsh call of the tree pies. Since then we have been able to also enjoy the rest of their repertoire, in something like sound-surround. The soft melodious chirping coming from the foliage of the karanj tree, the bob-o-links that punctuate from the neem tree, and the kotri call from the top of the straggly palm. If we look hard enough we can also spot the tip of the long tail peeping out from the leaves, and occasionally are treated to a glimpse of its sweeping graceful flight from one perch to the other. It looks like the tree pies are here to stay this year.


Kindness Day

Yes indeed, there is a World Day for Kindness! It is marked on 13 November, and the idea is to promote kindness. Initiated in 1998 by a group of NGOs, it ‘aims to promote kindness throughout the world and presents us with the opportunity to reflect upon one of the most important and unifying human principles. It is a day devoted to the positive potential of both large and small acts of kindness, trying to promote and diffuse this crucial quality that brings people of every kind together.’ 

Kindness Day
Kindness Day

Kindness is defined as ‘the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate’. Kindness is obviously not to be confined to one day. But this Day is designated to prompt us to think consciously about kindness, and to make resolutions to help us practice kindness every day

It sounds simplistic. Why on earth should anyone be reminded to be kind? But when we look around us, we find there is indeed need to do so. Why look ‘around us’? We will find the same thing when we look into ourselves. Did we say a smiling thank you to someone who was nice to us? When was the last time we did anything for anyone? Do we show basic courtesies in queues, on the roads, in public places?

In a world where people are growing increasingly disconnected, and it’s all about ME, ME, ME, it definitely seems that these behaviours we used to take for granted are disappearing. Never was the need for an initiative like Kindness Day greater.

A measurable proxy for kindness is an attribute called ‘Social Mindfulness’. This refers to being thoughtful of others and considering their needs before making decisions. Social mindfulness is related personality traits of honesty, humility, empathy, agreeableness and pro-social value orientation.

There have been international studies to understand social mindfulness and associated behaviours. One of the best known studies in recent times is the one by Neils Doesum and his associates, who carried out research across 31 countries to understand differences in social mindfulness among the countries. They studied most common, everyday acts of cooperation which require very little effort– for example, stepping to a side to let someone pass on a sidewalk.

Alas, India came up near the bottom of the pack! Japanese scored the highest—they made socially mindful decisions– decisions which kept the well-being of others in mind–72% of the time. Austrians and Mexicans were also towards the top of the list. People in Indonesia were at the bottom, making such co-operative, unselfish decisions only 46% of the time. But India at 50% was not much better.

So obviously, we Indians need to be more aware of this trait, and if at all there is an occasion to be marked with earnestness, it is World Kindness Day.

And remember, it is not about some earth-shaking decisions or major actions. It is about our everyday interactions with people around us—can we make their lives more better, less difficult, more pleasant?  The simplest way to start being more kind and socially mindful would probably be with the old adage ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.’

Specific steps would include:

  • Being conscious of the needs, feelings and thoughts of others.
  • Taking these into consideration before making decisions.
  • Not restricting choices available to other people by being selfish.
  • Being grateful for the kindness of others, and expressing that gratitude.
  • Taking a moment to help someone in need, or to make someone’s life easier.
  • Making it a habit to do random acts of kindness, however small.
  • Resolving to bring a smile to someone’s face, everyday.

Let’s take the occasion of World Kindness Day 2022 to start the personal journey to a more kind, caring and socially mindful world.

Go on, make your resolutions today.


Poppy for Remembrance

As a watcher of the BBC news channel, one thing that I have been noticing since this month began was that all the newscasters and other people who appeared on the channel have been wearing a lapel pin in the form of a poppy. This week there was also a picture of Britain’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also wearing the same while flagging off the Poppy Appeal.

Why are poppies so much in the news? The crimson poppy flower has become a symbol to honour those who have fallen in battle over the years, and also symbolizes hope and gratitude. The history of this century-old tradition goes all the way back all to World War I.

 As the story goes, during World War I, after a particularly bloody battle in the fields of Flanders in Belgium, thousands of bright red flowers mysteriously appeared. These were common poppies. Interestingly, the common poppy (Papaver rheos) is technically classified a weed which can grow even in the most inhospitable of landscapes. Basically it sprouts naturally in areas where there is massive disruption of the soil and the natural environment, such as bare lands which had been disturbed by the movement of troops and battle equipment. It is believed that during the Napoleanic wars of the early nineteenth century poppies bloomed profusely around the bodies of fallen soldiers, painting the battleground blood red. The same thing must have happened at Flanders.

John McCrae, a lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces fighting in Flanders, who had just lost a close friend in the battle, was so moved by this spontaneous bloom that he wrote a poem about the flowers’ resilience and ability to grow in such inhospitable conditions. Titled In Flander’s Field, it was told from the perspective of the fallen soldiers buried beneath the poppies, and honoured the troops who lost their lives in that conflict. The opening lines of the poem:

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

McCrae’s poem was published in London’s Punch magazine in December 1915. It touched a chord in all those who were suffering the losses of loved ones in the war. The poem was read at memorial services, and reprinted it in many publications. Moina Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia in the United States, first came across In Flanders Field in the Ladies Home Journal and was so moved by it that she vowed always to wear a red poppy in remembrance of the lives lost in war. She found some poppies made of fabric in a store; and bought 25 silk poppies for herself and her friends. Once the war ended she herself began to make poppies out of red silk, and sell these to raise money to support the veterans returning from the war. She also lobbied for the poppy to be recognised as a memorial symbol. In 1920 the little red flower was recognized by the National American Legion as the official national emblem of remembrance.

The United States marks this memory on two days– Memorial Day is celebrated in May while 11 November marks Veterans Day. Over time, in the United States, the tradition of the poppy as the symbol of the day has been largely replaced by the yellow ribbon and red, blue and white ribbon campaigns. 

The poppy tradition however took firm root across the Atlantic, and continues to flourish. It first reached France through a French lady Madame Guerin who had seen the introduction of the poppy in America. She thought that selling poppies was a great way to raise money for children who had been affected by the war in France, and she engaged thousands of war widows in making paper poppies, and selling over a million poppies by 1921.  The Royal British Legion adopted the symbol immediately. The idea also spread to the other Commonwealth countries. The first poppy event was held on 11 November 1921.

Thus for over a century now, wearing a poppy has become a symbol of remembering the soldiers lost during World War I in many countries. The flower made of paper or fabric, is generally affixed to the left shoulder to symbolize the act of keeping those who have passed away close to one’s heart; the left shoulder is also one where military medals are worn. 

In the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand, red poppies are worn in November, especially on 11 November. This date is marked as Remembrance Day as it commemorates the anniversary of the signing of the armistice that formally ended World War I “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918. This day is now an occasion to remember all those who have lost their lives in all conflicts since World War I.

While the original batch of poppies were bought from France, the first factory to produce poppies in England was set up in 1922, employing five disabled ex-military personnel. Today the Royal British Legion has a factory that employs 50 ex-servicemen all the year round to make poppies for fund-raising events. The poppy has transcended its purely commemorative status to become an object that provides financial stability for the war-affected. 

The annual Poppy Appeal flagged off by the British Prime Minister last week raises funds for The Royal British Legion to support the armed forces community who have served, or are currently serving in the armed forces, and have subsequently been affected physically, mentally or economically by war.

In an age that is even today more war-torn than ever, where young people are laying down their lives in brutal and meaningless warfare in so many parts of the world, this single flower serves as a powerful symbol not only of remembrance, but also a mark of honour, pride and support for those who still give up everything for the security and peace of nations.


Elaben Bhatt: Simply Inspiring, Inspiringly Simple

Last week we lost Elaben Bhatt, Gandhian, founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), co-founder of Women’s World Banking, Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, Trustee of Gandhi Ashram;  winner of national and international awards including the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Right Livelihood award and the Padma Bhushan.

Ela Bhatt

As people who worked in the development sector in Ahmedabad, we have of course seen her, heard her and admired her. Her simplicity, her straight-forwardness and compete dedication to the cause of the economic empowerment of unorganized women, lifted our eyes and minds to a higher plane, and showed us the possibility of the difference one soft-voiced person could make.

Much has been written about her in the last few days, and maybe there is nothing startlingly new to add. But we still need to refresh our memories of this stalwart and pay our homage.

So here are some excerpts from a book called ‘Don’t Sprint the Marathon’* which can give us some insights on the early influences which shaped her. Elaben spoke to the author and the write-up is based on these conversations.

‘Ela never topped her school or the college. She might have been in the top 10 percentile, but was never unduly pushed into driving herself very hard. Her father would typically buy a variety of books during the summer vacations and expect her to read them to improve her language skills, which she largely did. Her overall value system was shaped not only by her highly principled father, but the entire nationalistic climate of the time. She was growing up in an India which was all set to break the shackles of British rule. Gandhi was a household name, his teachings the religion of the day, and his life and example to be emulated.

Ela, even as a child, seems to have had a highly developed sense of fairness as well as being highly sensitive to any form of exploitation of the under-privileged.

Her mother’s deep involvement in the women’s movement seems to have raised her hackles against the exploitation of women, who she saw were contributing more than their fair share to the economy of the country. But just because they weren’t paid for their ‘service’ and they were not organized in any manner, they seemed to be easy prey for all sorts of exploitation at the hands of the entire organized system. For example, even as a youngster, Ela was sensitive to the fact that while women did most of the agricultural work in the villages, apart from running the households, they did not qualify for any loans from the banking system.

It is awareness of inequities such as these which probably came through her parent’s work that shaped Ela’s perspective and future. Given her nature, she had to stand up for the underdog.’

Nothing can capture her humility and sensitivity like this para in the introduction to her book ‘We Are Poor, But So Many’: ‘In writing about the lives of poor self-employed women, I have been presumptuous. I have written about women who are unlikely to read what I have written about them. Moreover, my perception is unavoidably limited by the economic and social environment to which I belong. So in all honesty, I cannot claim to speak for the women I write about, I can only speak for myself.’ And this from the person who spent her entire working life working with these very women and among them!

May her soul rest in peace, and may she continue to inspire.


*V. Raghunathan. Don’t’ Sprint the Marathon. Harper Collins.

Bridge-building Women

The recent tragedy of the collapse of the suspension bridge in Morbi in Gujarat has brought into focus a lot of information on bridges and news reports are filled with engineering terms related to bridges.   

While the blame game is on about who was at fault—engineers, contractors, civic authorities, or just the uncontrollable rush of holiday makers, it is perhaps a good week to go back and understand a little about early bridges and bridge builders. And to discover that one of the first patents for a chain-suspended bridge in England was filed in 1811 by a woman! This was Sarah Guppy an engineer, inventor, campaigner, designer, reformer, writer, environmentalist and business woman, in a period when it was unthinkable that women could be anything except wives, homemakers and mothers.

Sarah was born in 1770 in a wealthy merchant family of Birmingham. It was a period when the industrial revolution was shifting the largely agrarian economy of England towards mechanized manufacture. In 1795 Sarah married Samuel Guppy, a rich Bristol merchant fifteen years older to her and settled into family life in Bristol.    

As per the societal norms of the time, women were expected to keep house and raise children. Sarah largely conformed to her role (she went on to have six children), but she was far from docile and dull. Sarah was exceptionally well-read, talented and creative; she and her husband were part of a Bristol social set that included mercantile and innovative people. Among their friends were Thomas Telford a road and tunnel engineer, and the family of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel was one of the most versatile engineers of the 19th century, responsible for the design of tunnels, bridges, railway lines and ships. He is best remembered for his construction of a network of tunnels, bridges and viaducts for the Great Western Railway (GWR). Coming into contact with such people sparked Sarah’s interest in the science and craft of engineering, and triggered in her creative mind the desire to herself invent engineering solutions.

Sarah was an early advocate of a suspension bridge in Clifton, and was engaged in preparing models of a bridge that could span the river Avon, a project that had long been debated and discussed. Her idea was to work on a way of piling foundations to create a new type of suspension bridge, and she made drawings for the same. Her son Thomas was GWR’s principal engineer, and she gave the design and plans for her bridge over the Avon to Brunel.

When her youngest daughter was just a year old, Sarah applied for a patent for a way of piling foundations to create a new type of suspension bridge. In March 1811, she obtained a patent for ‘erecting and constructing bridges and rail-roads without arches or sterlings, whereby the danger of being washed away by floods is avoided’.  What was noteworthy was that Sarah became the first woman ever to patent a bridge. Even more noteworthy that this was in a period when married women could not even own property in their own name. This included patents which were considered to be intellectual property which could have some value.

The patent had no drawings and no detailed information as to how the bridge was actually to be built. However her designs provided the blueprints for Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and Thomas Telford’s Menai Bridge. When Telford approached her for permission to use her patented invention, she reportedly waived the fees, but managed to claim credit for its design.

Sarah’s inventive mind did not stop with that. She developed a devise to prevent barnacles forming on boat hulls, and sold the contract to the British Navy. She also put forward a scheme to prevent soil erosion on railway embankments by planting willow and poplar trees. Even as she played her role as homemaker, she came up with innovations. She designed a bed that could also be used as a gym with steps and bars for exercising; and a coffee urn whose steam could be used to boil an egg and at the same time keep the toast warm. An all-in-one breakfast hotplate! She was even granted a patent for this in 1812. In all Sarah took out ten patents, a remarkable achievement.in the late Georgian and early Victorian period.  

Sarah was not just ahead of her times in her engineering prowess. She wrote and presented schemes for a wide range of issues including animal welfare, education, agriculture and horticulture. She also wrote a book for children, and founded a charity school for girls. 

Bridging the span across continents, and across nearly a century, this is a good time to remember Shakuntala A. Bhagat—India’s first woman civil engineer. Shakuntala was born on 6 February 1933. Her father S.B. Joshi is regarded as the Father of Bridge Engineering in India. She was just 20 years old when she got her civil engineering degree from VJTI in Mumbai, the first woman in India to do so. From 1954-1956 she went to West Germany and UK for practical training, and went on to get her master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. She returned to India to join IIT Mumbai as assistant professor in 1960. She went on to become Head of the Heavy Structures Laboratory at IIT.

Shakuntala was more than an academic. She pioneered many innovative structural designs, especially for bridges. She and her husband designed and patented an innovative prefabricated modular system known today as the Quadricon Modular Bridge System. This is a series of prefabricated mass-produced modular bridge steel parts, small and lightweight enough to make transport easier for builders. They can be used in different types of bridges, different spans, traffic widths, and loads, all they had to do was change the combination of the assemblies.

Shakuntala Bhagat was awarded the Woman Engineer of the Year Award in 1993.  She passed away in 2012, a century after the first patent for a bridge was awarded to Sarah Guppy. She left behind a lasting legacy of over 200 Quadricon bridges around the world (including 69 in India) in terrains that challenge engineers even today.

Recently the Government of India announced the establishment of the Indian bridge management system to collect information on bridges. This would certainly be enriched by adding information on the pioneers who designed and built bridges.   


Two States are Born

November 1 is marks the birth of two states in the country—Karnataka and Haryana.

Karnataka State Emblem

Karnataka came into being on this date in 1956, after the passage of the States Reorganization Act. It is also called the Unification of Karnataka. During the British Raj, the area now called Karnataka was part of many administrative units. About one-third was part of the Mysore Princely State. The rest was divided among Nizam’s Hyderabad, the Bombay Presidency, the Madras Presidency, and the territory of Kodagu.  The Kannadigas were minorities in all these areas, and felt that their language as well as socio-economic development were not being given priority. Hence started the movement to unite all Kannada-speaking people into one state. The demand started way back in 1856 and got a fillip with the formation of the Karnataka Vidhyavardhaka Sangha in 1890. But it gathered momentum when Aluru Venkata Rao made an appeal in 1903 for the unification of the Kannada-speaking area of Madras and Bombay Presidencies with Mysore State. The movement grew stronger over the years, with a literary thrust and the formation of the Kannada Sahitya Parishad in 1915. The initiative developed in parallel with the Independence struggle, and also gained political strength. The growing strength led to the approval of the formation of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress in 1920.

The Nehru Report of 1928 which appealed for dominion status for India, a federal set up, joint electorates etc., also recommended a separate state for Kannada-speakers. Nothing much happened during the Raj though the Congress pushed for it and the idea had the support of the Maharaja of Mysore. This was probably due to the British not being quite sure how they would manage this. At Independence, the portions of Karnataka that were a part of Nizam’s Hyderabad did not become free along with the rest of India, because the Nizam did not accede. It was only on 17 Sept 1948 that they became part of free India after the Nizam was overthrown. But at this point, neither the Congress nor the Maharaja showed any urgency in the matter of creating the State of Karnataka. In fact, it was only after violent protests, strikes and fasts that the unification was approved in Parliament, and the State of Mysore came into being. It was renamed Karnataka on November 1, 1973.

November 1 is marked as Karnataka Rajyotsava, and is a holiday in the State.

Harayana State Emblem

Haryana too was formed on 1 November 1966, 10 years after the unification of Karnataka. It was formed by the partition of the former state of East Punjab into Punjabi-speaking Punjab, and Hindi-speaking Haryana. In fact, the original clubbing of Haryana with Punjab was arbitrary. The area had been ceded to the East India Company in 1803. It passed to the British, who made it part of the North-Western Provinces and then merged it with Punjab in 1858. But it was never a happy union. The people of both Punjab and Haryana wanted the separation, though the Punjab side was more vociferous. The movement for separation started early in the 1900s, led by stalwarts like Lala Lajpat Rai and Asaf Ali in the early days, and spearheaded by the Punjabi Suba continuing into the ‘60s. The Union Territory of Chandigarh serves as the capital of both the states. Which is a another story!

Celebrating the spirit of federalism, diversity, many languages and cultures!