#ShankarAbajiBhise – The Edison Of India Having 200 Inventions In His Name.
Entirely self-trained, this ace inventor from colonial-era Bombay shot to global fame with his revolutionary ‘Bhisotype.’ And yet he remains all but forgotten in his own country.
Born at Bombay on
29th April 1867, Shankar spent his days poring over Scientific American magazines, Bhisey showed a real aptitude for the sciences, constructing a “small apparatus at home which made coal gas” at the age of just 14, writes JB Kulkarni in a Council of Scientific & Industrial
Research (CSIR) publication.
"I owe everything to the mechanical education I received from that American magazine," he told a newspaper many decades later.
During his early 20s, he even formed a club for the scientifically curious, while also designing crazy gadgets like an
electrical bicycle, a signal indicator for Bombay suburban railways etc
Bhisey even wrote columns in the Marathi science magazine called Vividh Kala Prakash, through which he communicated the importance of science to ordinary people.
These were created at a time when due to the
British Raj, independent creators weren’t offered constant funding and attention for them to thrive with their creativity.
But soon Bhise got his big break, through a competition organised by a British Inventor’s Journal to design a machine for weighing groceries, in the 1890s.
Getting inspired early morning, his revolutionary blueprint won the competition, defeating British participants.
Shankar resolved to his Bombay friends that he would "not return home unless I either make a success or spend till my last pound".
And so began a remarkable phase of
his career, when the young inventor was drawn into anti-colonial circles in the very heart of empire. Before leaving, he told his friends that he would not come back to Bombay unless he made it, or ran out of money.
Bhisey arrived in London with a letter of introduction from
Dinsha Wacha, the Bombay-based secretary of the INC and delivered this to Dadabhai Naoroji -- a nationalist colleague with a flourishing business in England. He was impressed to see Bhise’s skills and soon formed a partnership.
He worked out of a small workshop in London, which
was usually very cold. But he managed to create some really innovative inventions here too, including a cool electronic signboard that was adopted by chain stores across Britain and Europe.
He also created an automatic flushing toilet, a telephone, and several kitchen gadgets
and In 1905, he even patented a prototype push-up bra, a "bust-improving device" for "imparting a graceful and full appearance to the bust". Nonetheless, it was his work in the printing industry that caught the attention of the world.
“He invented one such machine BHISHOTYPE
cast [where] thirty-two different [metal] types [used to print newspapers and books] simultaneously. However, people did not believe his claims, and he was challenged by engineers of the Caston Type Foundry, a leading type-casting firm in London. Bhise Accepted the challenge,
set up his own foundry, the Bhiso-Type Ltd, with financial assistance from London and produced a machine in 1908. This silenced his critics as well as the English engineers. The machine could automatically cast and assemble 1200 different types every minute,” writes JB Kulkarni
At this point, Naoroji told Bhisey that he needed to find more deep-pocketed investors. He thus directed the inventor to his friend Henry Hyndman, the "father of British socialism".
Hyndman was a disciple of Karl Marx. He assailed
London's "profit-mongering classes". Incredibly, anti-capitalist Hyndman was himself a prominent businessman with wide-ranging printing industry contacts. He promised to raise a whopping £15,000 for the Bhisotype.
This was where things started to fall apart.
Bhisey spurned an
offer from a printing industry giant, the Linotype Company, to buy out the Bhisotype. He spent excessive time fine-tuning his machine, confident about Hyndman's promised financing.
But, by 1907, Hyndman realised that he could not raise these funds. Naoroji's reserves dried up
the following year. In December 1908, a heartbroken Bhisey had to cease work and sail back to Bombay, having truly spent "till his last pound".
And here he caught a second wind.
Aboard his Bombay-bound steamer was Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bhisey dazzled Gokhale with his typecaster
Bhisey & on Gokhale’s Invitation attended Congress’s annual convention in 1908 as the Guest of Honour in Madras.
Gokhale contacted Ratan J Tata of the Tata Group and secured a new, larger commercial syndicate at the behest of India's leading industrialist family.
The Tata
syndicate fizzled out by 1917, but it did propel Bhisey onto a new career in America.
Curiously, he never successfully marketed the Bhisotype. In New York, however, Bhisey grew rich from an iodine solution he developed.
Health-wise, it was of questionable efficacy, but it was
heartily endorsed by Edgar Cayce, an American psychic and mystic. Cayce's followers continue to market and use the solution to this day.
In his final years, Bhisey veered towards the occult: one of his last inventions was a "spirit typewriter", an improved Ouijia board. This,
along with the Bhisotype's failure, made for a dubious end to the Indian Edison's career.
However, the Scientific American, which he cherished as a child, had this to say about him:
“While India has achieved brilliant success in science, literature and the arts, it had given
little to the world in the way of invention. Whatever may have been the opinion of the world, the work of Mr Bhise should do much to dispel the illusion.”
He passed away on 7 April 1935, in New York at the age of 68.
Despite his late-life quirks, he was a true believer in the
freedom struggle, attending anti-colonial demonstrations alongside Naoroji in London, while supporting and spreading the gospel of MKGandhi’s ideas during his time in New York.

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