(This post is based on the information researched and compiled meticulously by Dr (Ms) Ajana Chaudhuri, Retired Director, India Meteorological Department, Kolkata, and Hony. Research Fellow of the Asiatic Society, Kolkata. She had sent the information to Dr S. M. Kulshrestha, Retired Director General of Meteorology, New Delhi, in the years 2000-01, and he had then kindly shared it with me. The credit for this information goes entirely to Dr Chaudhuri. I also thank her for going through my earlier post and suggesting modifications, which I have now incorporated. – R. R. Kelkar 13 May 2007)
It is not commonly known that long before the India Meteorological Department was established in 1875, an Indian was at the helm of a government meteorological observatory under the British rule. In the year 1829, an observatory had been set up in the premises of the Office of the Surveyor General of India on Park Street at Calcutta (now Kolkata). The Surveyor General at that time was George Everest.
V. N. Rees served as the Superintendent of the Calcutta observatory from its establishment in 1829 until his retirement in October 1852. Radhanath Sikdar, then Chief Computor of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, was entrusted with the charge of this observatory in addition to his main responsibility in surveying work.
Radhanath’s new appointment was greeted with great enthusiasm by the leading Calcutta dailies, not only because he was the first Indian to occupy this responsible position, but because he has already earned great fame in geodetic surveying work.
Radhanath Sikdar had joined the Survey of India at Dehra Dun in December 1831 in the post of Computor and he was the first Indian to do so. He was barely nineteen years old at that time. Dr Tytler, Professor of Mathematics at Hindu College, Calcutta, had recommended his pupil’s name to George Everest for his keen mathematical proficiency and investigative mind. Both George Everest and his successor, Andrew Waugh had held Radhanath in high esteem, and Everest had this to say about him, “There are few in India, whether European or native, that can at all compete with him. Even in Europe these mathematical attainments would rank very high.”
Radhanath proved to be an invaluable asset to the Survey of India and in 1851, he was promoted to the post of Chief Computor, and transferred to Calcutta. It was with this background that the Friend of India had said in its issue of 11 November 1852 about Radhanath Sikdar: “This native gentleman, lately Head Computor in the same establishment, has long been the first among few natives, whose scientific acquirements emulate those of Europeans…and we have little doubt that he will ably fulfill his duties as the head of the office of which he has long been the soul.”
Immediately after assuming charge of the Calcutta observatory, Sikdar prepared a table for reduction of barometric observations to 32°F for which he had to develop his own formula. It was based upon the physical concept that the temperature reduction was to be applied on two counts: the thermal expansion of the brass scale attached to the barometer and the dilatation of the mercury column in the tube. Sikdar’s work was significant because it made it possible to compare pressure observations taken at different times. A note describing Sikdar’s formula was communicated to the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal by the Deputy Surveyor General, Col. H. L. Thuillier and it was published by the Journal in 1852 (Vol. 21, No. 4, pp. 329-332).
During the years 1829 to 1852, the Calcutta observatory had not been taking observations at strictly specified hours, but around sunrise, apparent noon and sunset, which varied from day to day. No instrumental correction or bar-reduction was applied. Radhanath introduced the system of hourly observations with proper corrections right from December 1852. Meteorological abstracts of hourly, daily and monthly means of the principal meteorological elements and many derived parameters, were published regularly in the Proceedings and Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal from December 1852 to1877 without a break. The credit of introducing accurate, systematic and uninterrupted hourly meteorological observations in the country, as well as their methodical processing, should go to Radhanath Sikdar. After he retired in November 1852, Gopinath Sen followed his methodology until 1877, when the Alipore observatory began to run independently.
The prime mover of the India Meteorological Department, H. F. Blanford, wrote in his first Administration Report, that the 24 years’ data from 1853 to 1877 of the Surveyor General’s Observatory “are the finest piece of our knowledge of the climate of Calcutta.”
Radhanath became a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1853 and he was inducted as a member of its Meteorology and Physical Science Committee in 1858.
It was Radhanath Sikdar, who in 1852, had reported to the then Surveyor General, Andrew Waugh, about a Himalayan peak that was the tallest in the world, and which was later named by Waugh, after his predecessor, as Mount Everest.
It was Sikdar again who had started in 1853, a time signaling service for ships, based upon observations of the transit of stars across Calcutta.
Sikdar retired from government service in 1862, after which he led an eventful life devoted to social work and popularization of science until death came upon him on 17 May 1870.
To read a more recent and comprehensive article entitled “Radhanath Sikdar – Through the Haze of Time and Neglect”about Radhanath Sikdar, by Ajana Chowdhary, R R Kelkar and A K Sen Sarma published in the Statesman, Kolkata, on 1 March 2009, click here
India Post has honoured Radhanath Sikdar through the issue of a commemorative postage stamp on 27 June 2004.