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Needham On Early Indian Inventions Of Hydraulics, Cotton-Gins And Alcohol Distillation
by D.P. Agrawal

Joseph Needham was a great scholar who brought Oriental Science to the notice of the West.  We would like to draw attention to Habib's recent article, as it provides some insights into Needham's mind.

Habib also dwelt upon some very important mechanical instruments invented by the Indians which were noticed by the ever perceptive eyes of Needham.

Habib wrote:

The great venture of the late Joseph Needham, the publication of the monumental series, Science and Civilisation in China, began in 1954. As the volumes came out it became clear that Needham was not simply concerned with the development of science and technology in China, but wished to set it in a worldwide context, with special attention paid to inter-cultural exchanges. It, therefore, became necessary for him to establish the sequence of developments that had taken place in civilisations other than the Chinese. While for Europe there was a vast amount of work already done, whose results he could use, this was by no means the case with India, Iran and Central Asia. And yet Needham extensively explored the scientific and technological aspects of the Indian and Islamic civilisations, going to texts and many out-of-the-way secondary sources. His statements on India, often occurring as asides, were never carelessly made, and invariably gave a critical assessment of the existing state of research; and he often gave good guidance on areas that needed to be explored (P.246).

About Noria and Saqiya: Water Lifting Devices

Regarding the water-lifting devices, Habib informed us that in the very few studies of the history of water-lifting devices in India, such as Ananda K. Coomaraswamy's pioneering note on the Persian wheel, there have been a lack of distinction between different kinds of water-wheels.  All references to a water-wheel were deemed by Coomaraswamy and others to stand for the Persian wheel, which is a geared saqiya.  A.P. Usher drew attention to the confusion between the two forms of water-wheels, "the noria or Egyptian wheel and the chain of pots."  Needham, in Science and Civilisation, Vol. IV(2), gave a clear definition of the two forms:  the noria having the containers fixed to the rim of the wheel and the saqiya on the rope or chain flung over the wheel (p. 356).  Having done so, he was able to follow up the evidence gathered by Coomaraswamy and Laufer and argue that the earliest water-wheel in India was the noria and that India was probably the country of origin of this device.

The reasons Needham adduced for this conclusion were two-fold.  First of all, the noria was in the Hellenistic world in the first century BC and in China in the second century AD.  This proximity of date in such distant civilizations suggested an intermediate source of diffusion.  Secondly, he located the earliest recorded reference (derived presumably from Coomaraswamy) to the noria in the term cakkavattaka (turning wheel) used in the Cullavagga Nikaya (assigned to ca. 350 BC) for one of the three permissible models of water-lift.  Though these details do not appear in Needham’s work, this term was actually glossed by Buddhaghosa (fifth century AD) as arahattaghatiyanta, which in turn was explained as "a well-wheel with water-pots attached to its spokes" by Kassapa (twelfth century).  It is clear that since ara means "spoke" and ghata, "earthen pot", araghata or, in its Prakrit form, arahatta or arahattaghati, must mean a wheel "with earthen pots on the spokes."  So Buddhaghosa's explanation, even without Kassapa's late commentary, was sufficient to show that at least he conceived the cakkavattaka as a noria.  L. Gopal cites a passage from the earliest version of the Pancatantra, datable to ca. 300 AD, which speaks of a man operating an araghatta (araghattavaha).  This term, which must originally have been used for the noria, is of a very early date indeed.  On the other hand, there is still no firm evidence in India for the chain of pots or "potgarland" (to use Schioler's terminology) earlier than the sixth century, when Yasodharman's Mandasor incription dated 589 in the Malava Era (=532 AD) first attests it.  With Bana in the next century, the references to the potgarland become fairly numerous ("rosary like the rope on which the pots are placed").

Gearing is not yet present, for Bana says explicitly that both the "rosary" and the "water-pot device" (ghati-yantra) were turned by the right hand.  It must be remembered that human drive would imply vertical rotation (and so no gearing), while animal power, usable only with horizontal rotation, needed gearing to convert the horizontal into vertical motion.  The well-known Mandor frieze (twelfth century) indeed shows a wheel with a potgarland worked by two men, while water comes out for camels to drink.  There is naturally no gearing here.  The earliest explicit description of the gearing mechanism of the "Persian wheel" or geared saqiya is still that of Babur (d. 1526).

Habib would like to add to Needham's suggestion by postulating a chronological sequence in three stages:

1. Noria alone, fourth century BC to fourth century AD
2. The pots previously attached to the spokes and rim now transferred to the chain ("potgarland") (sixth-seventh century); the use of this ungeared saqiya attested, twelfth century
3. Introduction of the gearing mechanism, and thereby the full-fledged saqiya or Persian wheel, making possible the use of animal power, some time before 1500 AD

Despite elaborate arguments to the contrary, like those of L. Gopal, where an Indian origin for the saqiya is claimed, Needham's suggestion that India first only had the noria has stood the test of subsequent research fairly well. There seems to be yet no indication that at about 350 BC any trace of the noria was found in any civilization other than India, so Needham was also probably right in ascribing an Indian origin to the noria.

Worm-Gearing And Crank

Habib said that with almost no materials in his hand relating to the history of worm-gearing in India, Needham (Science and Civilisation, IV(2), pp. 122-24) yet proposed that the device originated in India.  His argument was based on the presence here of the charkhi or cotton-gin, with two elongated worms serving to turn its rollers in opposite directions.  Noting its presence in Indo-China and Xinjiang, Needham further speculated that it reached China from India by two routes, via Burma and Indo-China, in about the fifth century AD and via Central Asia in the thirteenth.  This would mean that the cotton-gin must have been in use in India before the sixth century; but there was no evidence to prove this when Needham was writing.

The device being technologically significant - "the most ancient form of rolling mill," in Needham's words - was particularly important to test this hypothesis.  Schlingloff did well to identify the scene in an Ajanta painting on "the left wall of Cave I to the left of the second cell-door as one of cotton-processing activities.”  But "the rectangular frame…, the upper part of which is a double string [rect. Roller]" cannot possibly be a scotching bow, as believed by Schlingloff.  Ishrat Alam has rightly identified it with the Indian cotton gin: the rollers are thin because, for lack of a crank-handle, the upper roller had to be rotated by hand.  Thus, we have the geared cotton-gin well attested for the sixth century, in conformity with Needham's hypothesis.  It was not yet the instrument identical with that of later days, since it had no crank-handle.  We must suppose that this was possibly one reason why, when China received it, it was divested of its worm-gear and given two crank-handles, or a handle and a pedal, to rotate the two rollers (Pp. 252-260).

The Scutch-Bow

As in the case of the cotton-gin, so in the case of the cotton-carder's bow, Habib informed us that Needham's attribution of its origin to India has been confirmed by research. Earlier, the scientific perception, as presented by R. J. Forbes, was that the bow was present in pre-historic Bronze-Age Europe for separating wool-fibers.  It then inexplicably disappeared in the classical age, and then reappeared in Europe in the fifteenth century.  Habib pursued the Arabic dictionary definitions to show that "bowing" first appears only in the Qamus of al-Firuzabadi, ca. 1366-67.  Needham was later able to trace an eleventh-century reference to the device, stating that it came to China "with cotton itself," which could be either that of the sixth century or of the thirteenth.  But he added, almost intuitively, that "this was probably an Indian technique" (Science and Civilisation, IV(2), p. 127).  This was confirmed by Schingloff's quotations of reference to the scotch-bow in the Jatakas and in the Milindapanho texts that must go back to the early centuries of the Christian era.  He also cited Hemacandra's Abhidhanacintamani, written in the twelfth century.  It is tempting to postulate a slow diffusion of these inventions to Sind (early eighth century), Iran and Central Asia (by the eleventh century), the Arab World (fourteenth century), and Western Europe (early fifteenth century). Whatever one may think of these details, the essential hypothesis of Needham stands vindicated (Pp. 262-263).


More startling is the fact that Needham attributed the distillation of alcohol to India.  In Vol. V(4) of Science and Civilisation (especially pages 85-6,97,104-7 and 131-2), Needham offered a fundamental reconstruction of the history of liquor distillation in India and by its reconstruction has forced a review of the theory prevalent until recently.  The theory stated that the production of alcohol originated in the Mediterranean world in the thirteenth century.  Habib informed us that Needham showed much respect for Mehdihassan, who had in many papers drawn attention to possible evidence of early liquor-distillation in India.  He had, of course, before him Ray's History of Hindu Chemistry, with its citations of early medieval texts on distillation.  None of this, even the linguistic curiosity inherent in the double meaning of sunda (elephant's trunk, side tube), gave any certainty of India's role in the early history of alcohol production.  But Needham carefully analyzed the archaeological evidence of stills from Taxila, first brought to light by Marshall and A. Ghosh, and now heavily reinforced by Raymond Allchin with numerous remains of stills from the Shaikhan Dheri (Charsadda, NWFP, Pakistan) excavation.  Needham gave these stills the name of "Gandhara stills," compared them with the western or Hellenistic type of his still-classification, and then propounded that they were essentially "retorts."  He further stated that because of their early date (150 BC-150 AD), they might well be "the origin of all such forms of still."  The pottery remains at Shaikhan Dheri were so extensive, viz. one alembic, 130 receivers so capacious, that one must assume alcohol (not, for example, mercury) to be the intended product.  This would give precedence to India over all other countries in liquor distillation.

Needham's discussion does not make clear what degree of success the Gandhara stills could obtain in producing pure alcohol.  It could have given only a heavily diluted alcohol and, if the fire was kept low to reduce dilution, the pace of collection must have been very slow.

The modifications that were introduced in Italy in the twelfth century (possibly in close exchange of ideas with the Arab world, as some terms tend to show) were designed to improve cooling so as to increase pure alcohol collection at a low level of heat.  The "Moore's head" had a water-container set over a spoon-like alembic, a concave roof and annular rim-collection, connected by a tube with the receiver.  This undoubtedly led to the achievement of a much higher degree of purity in the distilled alcohol than under any other device. There is a possibility that traveling through the Islamic world, the new stills would have soon reached India.  The fresh wave of alcohol extraction then received.

It is true that by this time there were alternative forms of stills also available.  These forms are what he calls the "Mongol still" (condensation in a catch-bowl within the still) and the "Chinese still" (with the catch-bowl connected by the side-tube with receiver outside).  The former depicted on the wall of a cave of the period 1031-1227 and the latter shown in a drawing of 1163 in China (Science and Civilisation, V(4), pp. 62-68, 78-79).  But neither of these devices could have probably competed successfully with the improved stills from the Mediterranean.

Needham examines the famous passage of ca. 1595 in the A'in-I Akbari of Abu'l Fazl, in which three kinds of liquor-stills are described (pp. 106-7).  Blochmann translated that Needham identified the three kinds respectively as the Mongol, the Chinese and the Hellenistic types.  Habib asserted that while one may let pass the identification of the first still as "Mongol," the second is clearly Gandharan.  Abu'l Fazl expressly states that the condenser was the receiver itself placed in cold water.  The third, which Needham identifies as "Hellenistic" is still more interesting, since it clearly has the Moore's head (water at the top and still-head shaped like a "spoon", so expressly described).  It was, in other words, the medieval Italian-Arab still.

Needham observed that it was the Gandhara still, which some time between the seventh and twelfth centuries, was recognized as more practical than the Mongol and Chinese types and "adopted accordingly" (Pp. 265-268).

It may be mentioned here that the early invention of distillation must have helped production of pure zinc by distillation, as discussed by in essay on Zinc Smelting in India, posted earlier on this website.

Main Source:

Habib, Irfan. 2000. Joseph Needham and The History of Indian Technology. Indian Journal of History of Science 35(3): 245-274.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China. Vols. IV (2), V(4). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.