The Science Museum looks through 5,000 years of Indian innovation

By Oliver Smith 9 October 2017

How the country became a scientific powerhouse.

The first prosthetic leg that allows the wearer to sit cross-legged, a manuscript containing the oldest-recorded use of the number zero, and the model of a camera that was placed on Mars for less than the cost of the movie Gravity.

These are just some of India’s incredible scientific breakthroughs which are on display at London’s Science Museum as part of its new Illuminating India exhibition celebrating the country’s vast achievements.

The exhibit comes at an interesting time, on the one hand India’s government is currently under attack for being increasingly anti-science, promoting myths and exaggerating the country’s scientific record.

On the other hand, India is breaking records when it comes to its space programme, making regular launches and reducing the cost of putting satellites into space, and its electric car efforts are ramping up with its pledge to only sell electric by 2030.

Illuminating India charts the past, present and future of India’s scientific journey, here are some of the items on display.

1. The Bakhshali manuscript

Discovered in 1881 but only recently dated, this ancient Indian manuscript from around 300 AD contains hundreds of zeros denoted by dots.

The indication is that ancient Indians had in fact invented the revolutionary idea of using zero as a placeholder number (like the zeros in 1,000) far earlier than had previously been thought.

2. The Polar satellite launch vehicle

Created by Indian Space Research Organisation in the 1990s, the Polar vehicle has become an iconic Indian rocket.

Since 1993 41 Polars have been launched sending satellites into orbit for countries like the US, UK and Canada.

This February Polar put a record-breaking 104 satellites into orbit in a single launch.

Micromax mobile phone, 2016.

3. Micromax

Not a name you might recognise, but Micromax became one of the world’s biggest mobile phone makers throughout the late 2000s by creating low-cost devices sold to millions of Indians.

While today it’s struggling to compete in an increasingly premium smartphone market, Micromax pioneered the popularity of affordable phones with long-lasting batteries and the ability to have two SIM cards.

4. The Mars colour camera

At a cost of just $74m, India’s 2014 Mars Orbiter Mission made it into the red planet’s orbit on its first attempt, making India the first nation in the world to do so.

Most impressively the budget of the entire mission came in at less than Hollywood’s 2013 sci-fi flick Gravity and is the least expensive Mars mission to date.

The Mars Colour Camera was used on the mission to photograph the planet’s mountain ranges and landscape, to create India’s first Mars Atlas.

Illuminating India: 5000 years of science and innovation is free and at the Science Museum, London, until 31 March 2018.