India celebrates Engineers Day on September 15 every year, which is the birth anniversary of M Visvesvaraya, an engineering pioneer of the country. He was not only knighted by King George V but also awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1955 for his exceptional contribution towards construction and consolidations of dams throughout India. While India is an engineering powerhouse today, it is important to remember that the first engineering college in the country was set up only in 1847. On Engineers Day, it is fitting that we dig deeper into why the British, who colonized India, decided to finally teach the locals a niche discipline like engineering.
In 1837-1838, a famine ravaged Agra killing nearly a million people. As the British spent a considerable amount on providing relief, they felt an acute need for skilled people who could help build the Doab canal from Meerut to Allahabad. Around the same time, there were a lot of development projects including the construction of the Grand Trunk Road from Kolkata to Delhi. In order to educate Indians in every branch of engineering, Lieutenant Baird Smith of the Bengal Engineers was deputed to train a total of 20 students in Saharanpur. The difficulties encountered in this process led to the foundation of India’s first engineering college.
The students were soon shifted from Saharanpur to Roorkee. James Thomason, the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West provinces wrote to the Governor-General explaining the rationale behind the choice of Roorkee as the ideal site for the engineering college on September 23, 1847.
“The establishments now forming at Roorkee, near the Solani Aqueduct on the Ganges Canal, afford peculiar facilities for instructing Civil Engineers. There are large workshops and most important structures in the course of formation. There are also a library and a model room. Above all, a number of scientific and experienced officers are constantly assembled on the spot or occasionally resorting thither. These officers, however, all have their appropriate and engrossing duties to perform and cannot give time for that careful and systematic instruction, which is necessary for the formation of an expert Civil Engineer. On these accounts, the Lieutenant-Governor would propose the establishment at Roorkee of an institution for the education of Civil Engineers, which should be under the direction of the Local Government in the Education department,” Thomason opined.
Initially, the training imparted to young Indians was limited to surveying, levelling and drawing. Not only did the entrance test for admission commence in 1857, but the initial intake was only 16 students. Lieutenant R Maclagan was appointed as the first principal of the institution, known as Thomason College of Engineering. It was the first educational institution to introduce squash as a sport in India. After Independence, it was converted to India’s first Technical University in 1949. The students and the professors of this university played a crucial role in completing many civil engineering projects like the Bhakra Nangal dam. Subsequently, an Ordinance issued on September 21, 2001, conferred on it the status as the country’s 7th Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).