“One name stands conspicuous as that of a Meteorologist, whose labours exceed in amount and value those of nearly all the rest of our Meteorologists put together, that of James Prinsep, of the Calcutta Mint”, said George Buist who was the Secretary of the Bombay Geographical Society around 1850, in his preface to the publication,“History of Meteorological Research in India (1642-1850)”.

James Prinsep came to India in 1820 at the youthful age of 21, as Deputy Assay Master of the Mint at Benares. In 1830, when the Benares Mint was closed down, he was transferred to the Mint at Calcutta. Two years later, he succeeded Horace Wilson as the Master of the Calcutta Mint, and simultaneously also succeeded him as the Secretary of the Asiatic Society, in which capacity he served till 1838.

While at Benares, Prinsep had carried out a series of meteorological observations between 1824 and 1826, which were published in the Philosophical Transactions. Here he had presented very methodically, tables of daily barometric fluctuations, and diagrams of their annual sweep. His first accomplishment as the Secretary of the Asiatic Society was to initiate the publication of a new journal called Gleanings in Science.

Meteorological observations made at the Surveyor-General’s Office in Calcutta since 1828, began to be published regularly in the Gleanings. Though the phenomenon of atmospheric tides was not the subject of an exclusive study, Prinsep discussed the first three years of observations and calculated the annual average, daily tides and mean pressure as accurately as possible. The observations at Calcutta were compared with those made at Benares, Madras and other places, and it was deduced that the atmospheric pressure generally increased with latitude upto the Himalayan mountains.

Prinsep had a contempt for the unscientific and irregular manner in which observations were being made in those days, and called what went into meteorological registers as rubbish. He made all attempts to introduce a system that would place meteorological observations on a scientific footing. When instruments were changed, comparative observations were taken and recorded. He pointed out the indispensability of a correction to altitude measurements made with barometers, according to the time of the year and the altitude of the place. Prinsep took his own observations at the Assay office at 10 am and 4 pm every day.

In 1833, under a plan made by the astronomer Sir John Herschell, the South African Literary Association recommended that hourly meteorological observations be taken on the 21st and 22nd of every month, particularly in March, June, September and December in observatories around the world. Prinsep decided to implement these recommendations and the first set of observations were made on 21-22 March 1835 at Dadapur. They were later followed by observations on other dates and at other places in India. This could well be regarded as the beginning of synoptic meteorology in India.

Prinsep engaged himself in research in such varied fields as Greco-Bactrian and early oriental antiquities, Sanskrit and Persian languages, Indian scriptures, minerals, archaeology, and so on. He was even able to decipher the doctrines and edicts issued by Emperor Ashoka by studying the inscriptions on rocks and boulders made in the Brahmi script.  

To quote George Buist again, Prinsep was “a man distinguished in every department of science, and who paid with his life the penalty of over-exertion – reaping the reward of a reputation which must flourish fresh and green while the memory of worth and talent, prematurely cut off, endures.” James Prinsep died on 22 April 1840 at the age of 41. In 1843, the people of Calcutta collected funds and built a ghat to the south of Chandpal Ghat on the river Hooghly, in his memory. Even today, the city of Kolkata, has the Prinsep Ghat, a Prinsep Street, a Prinsep Park, and so on, all named after this genius of a man.

The above information was derived by me from various sources, printed and web-based, as available in June 2007. I have recently (in July 2011) had the privilege of corresponding with Dr Om Prakash Kejariwal, former CEO of Prasar Bharati and former Director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, who has done extensive research work on the life and work of James Prinsep. He has written a book about James Prinsep’s work in Benares. Dr Kejariwal has kindly given me the following additional information which I am now including in this post:

James Prinsep arrived in India not in 1820 but in September 1819 and was first in Calcutta for more than a year. He left India in 1838 and died in England. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society when he was just 27, for his work on the measurement of heat in furnaces. While in Benares, Prinsep laid down the underground drainage system and built a bridge on the river Karamnasa, which still serve the city. When he was working at the Benares mint, Prinsep had designed a very sensitive balance that could weigh with an accuracy of 1/3000 grain. For the eighteen years that he was in India, he regularly maintained a detailed meteorological register.