Abstract: Science for the Market: Research Strategies to Improve a Natural Dye, 1897-1914

Prakash Kumar


British India's European planters put up a spirited fight to protect natural indigo's export market in the West after the German firm BASF introduced cheaper and purer synthetic indigo on the market in 1897. India had been a significant producer and supplier of natural indigo (extracted from the leaves of the indigofera tinctoria plant) to the West throughout the nineteenth century, and the introduction of synthetic indigo (derived from coal tar extracts) threatened to bring that dominance to an end. To face cheaper synthetic's competition, planters conducted laboratory experiments to maximize the yield of indigo, improve its quality, and minimize the costs of production. This paper analyzes scientific experiments conducted in India and Britain between 1897 and 1914 in order to understand the process of scientific innovation in the natural indigo industry. I will focus on two key chronological points: 1903, when planters in the majority turned away from direct funding of experiments, and 1908, when a significant scientific report failed to make an impact on the business community. The paper will reflect on the relations of scientists and their patrons—the planters and the government. What types of scientific experiments were favored? And, on the other hand, why were certain key research findings ignored?