Skip to content
Science, Maths & Technology

Typewriters and bicycles: How everyday technology made modern India

Updated Monday 7th April 2014

While India has embraced digital technology, Thinking Allowed heard how smaller-scale everyday technology was at the heart of the nation's transformation.

Laurie Taylor:
'Laurie, Laurie, look give me the name of any piece of music you'd like to hear. Now go on, go on, anything you fancy.'

Well in truth I wanted to tell Brian that we'd played this game last time I was around at his house but he clearly wanted even more approval for his streaming music service. 'Shot Gun Boogie' by Tennessee Ernie Ford', I said wearily. 'Right, right, right', he said, filling in the search box, 'Ta ra there it is.' And indeed there it was. Just like that. But for all its immediacy, it somehow wasn't my Tennessee Ernie Ford. My original Shot Gun Boogie included taking a 78 record out of a cardboard envelope, placing it on a rubberised turntable, then winding up the gramophone player with the handle at the side, screwing a new needle into the playing arm and then carefully dropping that needle onto the first groove of the shellac record

I thought of what that ancient technology meant to me as I was reading a fascinating new book called Everyday Technology and the Making of India's Modernity – it's a book that provides [...] a really powerful corrective to the usual emphasis upon India as the home of ultra-modern large-scale technology.

When I recently met the author, David Arnold, who is professor emeritus of Asian and Global History in the Department of History at the University of Warwick, I began by asking him about those everyday aspects of Indian life that had prompted his research.

A man uses a typerwriter in an open-air office, in Kolkata, India, 2005. Creative commons image Icon Eric Parker under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license A man in Kolkata uses a typewriter in an open-air office, 2005

David Arnold:
Well one of the things I'm particularly interested in is the way in which in India, in particular, you see technologies on the street. So if you go to a high court or a post office in India you still quite often see encampments of men typing at typewriters. If you walk along many streets in India you will see people using sewing machines on the street – tailors, people like that. So I wanted to capture something of the way in which these small machines were a part of the vitality of street life in India, something which is visible, something which is audible but extremely important to the way in which many people earn their living, the way in which they think about technology and the way in which they in a sense engage with technological modernity.

Laurie Taylor:
And they turn, in some cases, don't they, into quite large industries, within India.

David Arnold:
Too often we think about technology as being very much the product of the West, that it's the West which invents typewriters, manufactures bicycles and so on. What I wanted to do was to say okay that's bound to be the case, particularly in the early part of the 20th Century but what happens when these things are imported into India? How do those machines then get appropriated, how do they acquire a new sort of social cultural character? And it's certainly the case that although most Indians can't actually manufacture bicycles etc., until quite late on in the century they find ways of assembling them from imported parts, gradually building up the kind of expertise which by the time of independence in 1947 puts them in a position to then begin manufacturing these kinds of items on a much larger scale.

Laurie Taylor:
Tell me a little bit about the [...] relative degree of acceptance and resistance which goes on. Can we take sewing machines as an example?

David Arnold:
Well there are two kinds of resistance I would think of here, one is the resistance of the British as the colonial power, in a sense they poo poo the idea that Indians have this ability to take up technologies and to incorporate them into their ways of working and living. But there's also resistance within Indian society itself because some of these machines are seen by some Indians – by no means all – as being alien and unnecessary. And of course the classic example here is that of Ghandi who gives a fair degree of approval to sewing machines but is highly sceptical about the importance of bicycles, for example, or typewriters. And in the case of bicycles Ghandi seems to take the view when he's come back to India in 1915 that bicycles are about speed. In fact the great thing about bicycles is they're very practical machines.

Laurie Taylor:
The idea is that these small pieces of technology are seen by some Indians as hung around with, if you like, imperialistic associations, that they are from an alien culture and they might destroy something which is intrinsically Indian?

David Arnold:
Yes and of course there's a very powerful movement in India – the Swadeshi movement from about 1905 onwards – in which Indians are trying to set up their own industries. And they have a measure of success in doing that first of all with textiles, matches, items of that sort. It's rather more difficult to set up your own workshops and factories producing typewriters and so on because they require much more specialised technology.

Laurie Taylor:
And this is the idea really that perhaps when the imperialist yoke is taken away we then discover something which is indigenous and wonderful and powerful and truly Indian?

David Arnold:
Yes that's part of it but it's also I think again not just about the ideology of a kind of economic nationalism, it's all about the very real practicalities of these kinds of machines. And what I was trying to get at in my book was to suggest that there is a great deal of discussion around these machines and that's terribly important about the emergence of a certain kind of Indian identity, how Indians can be modern in various ways. But it also affects the very everyday means by which people earn a living, trap around streets, work in small shops.

Laurie Taylor:
And what I hadn't thought about before I read your book was the way in which the arrival of these machines and the way they're adopted also gives you important information about the role of race and gender doesn't it.

David Arnold:
Yeah, well if we take the case of sewing machines again. Sewing machines were thought of by Singers, who were the principal manufactures of sewing machines going into India in the 20th Century, Singers tended to think that sewing machines would only be used by Europeans, essentially by European women. And it took an Indian, a Parsi in Bombay, a man called Patel, to say to them no you've got that completely wrong, Indians will use sewing machines, even traditional tailors will take up the sewing machine if you sell it to them in the right way. So you begin to get a shift away from this assumption about the sewing machine being a European machine to it being an Indian man's machine. But then what's even more interesting from my point of view is that there is a process about which these machines are then taken up by Indian women. And they of course over the course of the '20s, '30s and '40s become the principal users and consumers of these machines.

Laurie Taylor:
And one of the ways that you point out that these machines can be given, if you like, some more domestic resonance, affiliation or whatever is by naming.

David Arnold:
What you call something is a very important signal as to how intimate, practical, close you associate it with your life. And in India there's two kinds of processes here, one is the incorporation into Indian languages of words like cycle, so cycle ceases to be an English word, a European word, it's a common Tamil word, a common Hindi word. But equally the machines themselves are given Indian names, so Rice Mills are named after Hindu gods and goddesses, partly because it gives them a kind of aura of divinity or benevolence or something of that kind. And I think bicycle names are particularly significant and that in a sense runs slightly counter to my example because many of the bicycles in India have been named historically after mythologies which seem to have nothing to do with India, they're called Hercules or Atlas and I was very struck by the way in which one of the most successful bicycles in India in the 1940s and 1950s was called Robin Hood which I suppose suggests something courageous, adventurous. So maybe bicycles are particularly masculine in that sense whereas sewing machines come to be named in a much more feminine way.

Laurie Taylor:
Though you track down the uses of these everyday technology in the house, in the street, among various different groups, different genders, different races, you also in a way look at the effect on the state, the ways in which almost they have a sort of double edged sword in a way because the state can use them but the state resists and fights against them in some respects.

David Arnold:
I would reckon before independence that it's mainly government offices of various kinds that use typewriters. But one also has to recognise that these things can be used to subvert the state or to make the state more vulnerable. One can look at a situation in which nationalist leaders or political opponents of the British were able to use the telephone to communicate, they were able to use bicycles to disseminate their propaganda – all of these machines can be utilised against a colonial power or against the force of the state in ways which contradicts its power or subvert it.

Laurie Taylor:
Is there a way in which you tie together this everyday technology with the larger technology which is really, as you say, not the subject of your book but can you tie those two together – the emergence of India as, if you like, an apparently a high-tech state with the ways in which it adopted everyday technology?

David Arnold:
Well things have to start somewhere and I suppose one could trace a lineage by the way in which Indians and Europeans take up a typewriter, work in offices – women work in offices – and gradually you see the process by which call centres are set up in India and so on. But even the rapid adoption of mobile phones in India can be seen as one of the ways in which small technologies begin to assume enormous importance in a modernising technologizing society like that of India. So I think one has to understand the way in which people allow technologies to enter their lives but also the way in which many major firms in India often began by engagement in some of these small technologies by making bicycles, by lending out typewriters – there was an entrepreneurial spirit in India which I think is manifested through the early history of these technologies and of which we are now seeing, if you like, the fruits in the 21st Century.

Laurie Taylor:
How did this play into the caste system? [Was it] some machines are appropriate for use by some castes and some not?

David Arnold:
Well technology I would argue is never neutral, it always has gender connotations and it has race connotations. In the Indian context it also has caste connotations and for a long time – and it's not entirely disappeared today – there were very powerful objections to the lowest caste – the untouchables or dalits as we would now say – riding bicycles because this was thought to be an assumption of status that they weren't entitled to. So there are certainly ways in which one can see technology as perhaps actually reinforcing caste values as well as in other contexts subverting them.

Laurie Taylor:
I was talking there to David Arnold about the enduring Indian commitment to everyday technology.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Childhood in the Digital Age

When it comes to technology are you an optimist or a pessimist? Are social media changing the way that children form relationships? How is technology changing the way that children think, and how will it shape the classroom of the future? The amount of technology available to children today is greater than in any previous generation, and it is more specifically designed to capture their imaginations. There is heated debate as to how the digital influx is shaping children’s development and experience. Nathalia Gjersoe, from the Open University, introduces some of the key themes, issues, and evidence in this important field.

Video
20 mins
Are self-service machines in our supermarkets really the way forward? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Gary Edwards article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Are self-service machines in our supermarkets really the way forward?

'Automatic checkouts don't just annoy people – they alienate them', writes prize-winning young journalist Brendan Sharp.

Article
Cybersouls: Biographies Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Cybersouls: Biographies

Short biographies of the contributors to the Cybersouls programme, from the BBC/OU's series Digital Planet

Article
Cybersouls: Transcript Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

Cybersouls: Transcript

A full transcript of Digital Planet's invesitgation into questions of cyborgs and humans.

Article
Man vs machine Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Man vs machine

Should we worry about robots one day getting tired of being the junior partners?

Article
We might end up being looked after by robots. How do we prepare for that? Creative commons image Icon RIKEN-TRI Collaboration Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license video icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

We might end up being looked after by robots. How do we prepare for that?

As old age approaches, Geoff Watts confronts an inevitable future in the care of robots. But that doesn’t mean he likes it.

Video
15 mins
The Linux course Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC audio icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

The Linux course

Documentally grabs Andrew Smith for a quick chat about the technology at the heart of The Open University's Linux course.

Audio
10 mins
Power My Postcode: Compare energy sources in your own backyard Creative commons image Icon The Open University / mapping: Google under Creative-Commons license activity icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Power My Postcode: Compare energy sources in your own backyard

If you put a nuclear power station in your street, would you be able to power your town? How about solar panels? Bring the power debate closer to home.

Activity
The Silver Bridge Disaster: Eyebars in suspension Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team audio icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

The Silver Bridge Disaster: Eyebars in suspension

The 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge was a human tragedy - 46 people died - and an engineering mystery: why did a bridge built to last a century not make 40 years? Part 1: Eyebars in suspension

Audio
5 mins