Photo: Family records.
In recent years, the urgent need to arrest climate change has given rise to a movement in the US, Canada and elsewhere in the Western world promoting a new building material called mass timber. Advocates of mass timber would like to see ‘wooden skyscrapers’ come up around the world, arguing that each such building can reduce carbon emissions by thousands of tonnes compared to those made of steel and concrete, which they see as “materials of the last century”.
It is intriguing, then, to find that an Indian scientist was promoting a very similar vision as far back as the 1940s. Sonti Kamesam (1898-1953) saw wood as the key to inexpensive, sustainable housing and infrastructure, and envisioned a world in which it largely replaced steel as a basic building material. While he did not foresee its environmental advantages in the same way that today’s advocates do, he was certainly conscious of them.
Kamesam’s vision grew out of his pioneering work as a wood scientist. On a research visit to Germany in 1931, he had worked with a German colleague, Richard Falck, to develop a wood preservation treatment they christened the ‘Falkamesam process’. This invention, along with Kamesam’s subsequent contributions, went on to form the basis of an entire new class of wood preservatives, which then enabled the widespread use of wood as a construction material across the world for much of the 20th century and beyond.
An engineer by training, a bridge-builder by inclination, a chemist by profession and an entrepreneur by temperament, Kamesam was an innovator who did not fit easily into the stereotypes of his era. As a result, perhaps, he never won the fame that accrued to several of his Indian contemporaries, fellow scientists who became known for their theoretical contributions, institution-building, and, in later generations, state-funded ‘Big Science’ projects like the atomic energy or space programmes.
Information about Kamesam’s career is sparse, and we hope to undertake further research to fully assess his contributions. But there is no doubt that he was an important figure in the field of scientific innovation and its application in 20th-century India. Here, we attempt a preliminary reconstruction of his life and career, based largely on publicly available records, official and press reports, and information preserved in his family.1
Sonti Kamesam was born in 1898 in an educated family in the West Godavari district of Madras presidency. His father was trained in engineering and the law, having studied at Madras’s College of Engineering, then located in Chepauk, and Presidency College. Kamesam’s eldest brother, S.V. Ramamurthy, was an Indian civil service officer who graduated from Presidency College and Trinity College, Cambridge. A second brother was a well-known professor of mathematics, and a third, having qualified in medicine, was a pioneer in public health.
Kamesam went to school in Vizagapatam (Visakhapatnam) before studying mechanical engineering at the College of Engineering in Madras, shortly before it moved to Guindy. He graduated in 1920, winning the A.T. Mackenzie Memorial Prize. Unusually for the time, he also earned what was probably a research degree, an M.E. (honours), although we have been unable to ascertain where he completed these studies.
Kamesam went on to make his name in wood science rather than mechanical engineering in the conventional sense. Early in his career, he joined the prestigious Forest Research Institute (FRI), previously the Imperial Forest Research Institute, in Dehra Dun. This institution had been established by the British colonial government to improve the management and economic utilisation of the vast Indian forests.
Despite occasional run-ins with his superiors – he was known to be a proud and impetuous young man – Kamesam’s rise in the FRI was rapid. By the early 1930s, he was head of the institute’s Wood Preservation Section. One of his priorities was the preservation of wooden structures that were prone to attack by fungi and insects such as white ants. Scientists like Kamesam were concerned with finding ways to improve the strength and longevity of these structures, in order to enable the commercial use of a wide variety of woods in addition to traditionally used hardwoods like teak.
A number of preservatives – substances toxic to fungi and insects – were known at this time, but they all had drawbacks. Coal tar creosote had a strong, unpleasant smell. Solutions of inorganic salts of zinc, arsenic and copper were tried but some of these were ineffective against white ants, while others were costly. Many preservatives were susceptible to leaching away when the wood came into contact with moisture, an important drawback for outdoor structures.
In short, there was a demand for a new, reliable, economical process to preserve wood.
This was the main problem Kamesam worked on when the FRI sent him abroad on a research fellowship. In addition to spending time in the US and other countries, Kamesam spent 10 months in Germany in 1931. There, he worked with the eminent mycologist 2 Richard Falck, a professor of technical mycology and head of the Mycological Institute in the Forest Academy at Hannoversch Münden, a small town near Göttingen. (The academy later became a part of the University of Göttingen.) Their work resulted in two joint publications in the journal Chemiker Zeitung in 1931 that proved to be influential in the field of wood preservation.
These articles announced (in German) ‘A new, universally applicable wood preservative’ and a ‘Process for the indissoluble fixation of arsenic on wood fibre through the addition of chromates’. The two scientists had devised a method of treating wood with a mixture of arsenic pentoxide and potassium dichromate, and named it the Falkamesam process.
As the titles of their papers indicate, this process claimed to ensure that the preservative was entrenched in the wood even when exposed to moisture. Falck and Kamesam split up the patent rights to their invention, whereby Kamesam received the rights to exploit the patent in British India and the English-speaking world, including Canada and the US.
In India, there was immediate interest in the possible applications of this innovation. The Railway Board set up a committee in 1933 under the chairmanship of the (then) recent Nobel laureate C.V. Raman to assess the Falkamesam process’s effectiveness, presumably as a means to treat the wood used in railway sleepers. The Committee’s verdict was positive.
Meanwhile, Kamesam conducted further research at the FRI, trying to find an even more effective process. To the Falkamesam components – compounds of arsenic and chromium – he now added compounds of copper, arriving at a new preservative in 1933. This formulation, which was named ‘ASCU’ after the chemical symbols for arsenic and copper, was used to treat wood under high pressure.
It was effective against termites as well as fungi, fixed better onto the wood and was not easily washed away by rain. The FRI reported that it also promised to be “non-corrosive to steel, iron, and brass”, so that ASCU-treated wood could be used along with these materials.
Kamesam applied for patents for ASCU in several countries. He received Indian and British patents in 1933-1934, an American trademark in 1937 and an American patent in 1938.
Success and controversy
Kamesam suggested a wide range of potential uses for chemically treated wood: in the railways; in electricity lines; in highway bridges and culverts; and in the construction of factories, mines and marine structures like wharves, piers, ships and docks. As of 1935, the Indian Railways and the governments of Madras, the United Provinces, Mysore, Travancore and Bhopal were all using or planned to use ASCU-treated wood, primarily for railway sleepers and utility poles. By 1940, at least 20 ASCU treatment factories were functioning in India.
The rapid uptake of ASCU was no doubt aided by the strong endorsement it received from the FRI, one of whose functions was to advise governmental agencies on their use of wood. In 1938, the FRI published in its official journal a 45-page special report entitled ‘Ascu.—A Wood Preservative’, giving the background to the process, the results of experiments made to date and instructions to users.
Meanwhile, Kamesam’s remit at the FRI was expanded, and he was placed in charge of the Timber Development Section in addition to Wood Preservation.
In the late 1930s, Kamesam was deputed to the princely state of Travancore for three years as director of development, to advise the government on the use of timber from the state’s forests.
Newspaper reports show that during his time in Travancore, he promoted the use of wood for road surfacing and bridge-building. He convinced the government to construct a 313-foot wooden suspension bridge spanning the Pamba river at Kozhencherry. In 1939, he designed a footbridge that was 50 feet long, made up of just 100 cubic feet of wood, and capable of accommodating 150 passengers. It was portable and could be installed wherever needed.
But all was not well in Dehra Dun. According to Satish Kumar, a later wood scientist, Kamesam’s achievements were not well received by his British superiors. Moreover, it appears that there were instances of ASCU-treated poles not performing as expected in experiments conducted in northern India.
Around 1939, the FRI withdrew its 1938 publication on ASCU, arguing that additional research was needed to establish its efficacy. This retraction, as the Indian Institute of Science’s journal Current Science remarked, was a “very unusual procedure”, and would have consequences for ‘the future of a pioneer industry still in the nascent stage.”
The journal urged the Government of India to set up a committee to look into the issue. Such a committee was created and chaired, once again, by Raman. Its findings were supportive of ASCU. For its part, the FRI responded to the controversy by emphasising that they had “not condemned ASCU or discarded it as worthless”. They conceded that recent “failures [of ASCU] in North India were due, in large part, to inadequate treatment” (as opposed to the preservative itself being ineffective).
They were concerned that this may have been a consequence of users not having interpreted the instructions in the earlier publication correctly, and this was the reason they had withdrawn it for the time being.
In any case, Kamesam received an enormous vote of confidence from the market around this time, when the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), one of the largest corporations in North America and part of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, bought the rights to use ASCU to treat utility poles in the US and Canada. They paid an initial amount of $80,000, equivalent to around $2 million3 today – adjusted for the change in the price level and at least an order of magnitude larger as a share of economic output.
Kamesam received another laurel in 1939 when Andhra University awarded him an honorary doctorate (DSc).
Independent consultant and entrepreneur
After the controversy over ASCU, Kamesam’s career at the FRI seems to have stalled. Around1940, he resigned from government service and moved to Bangalore, where he set up a private firm providing ASCU-related products and services.
Meanwhile, Kamesam’s entrepreneurial temperament led him to take an interest in new areas relating to the environment. In 1947, he established a sanatorium named ‘The Hydrodietetic’ in a picturesque estate near Bangalore, anticipating by several decades the trend of wellness centres. The British Resident of Mysore State and the Dewan of Travancore, important personages of the period, were among those present at the opening. The Times of India reported that “sun and air baths, epsom baths, … hot packings, chromotherapy, actinotherapy, spinal manipulations, electrotherapy, corrective exercises, colonic irrigation, and massage, are some of the lines of treatment followed in this new sanatorium under expert supervision.”
After independence and the departure of the British, Kamesam was back in the good books of the Government of India. In 1949, he was chosen as part of the Indian delegation for the Forest and Timber Utilisation Conference in Mysore, in which 58 countries took part. In 1952, Kamesam lobbied the newly established Planning Commission in Delhi to implement his ideas on using wood to replace steel as a construction material, and tried to convince them to establish “a national structural materials commission”.
Kamesam developed a wood-based building material called ‘sansteel’ (also called ‘bamboocrete’) to replace the steel in reinforced concrete. He claimed that this was a less costly but equally effective substitute, and could offer a way to build inexpensive houses for villages across India.
He had a flair for eye-catching moves. In 1953 it was reported that the world’s tallest wooden building, an eight-storey residential complex, would be built in Delhi. Kamesam, now a housing consultant advising the Planning Commission, was designing the building, which would use his ‘sansteel’ technology.
Unfortunately, Kamesam passed away a couple of years later, while still in his fifties – too early to have a long-term impact on housing solutions or some of his other pet projects. But his ASCU process kicked off the worldwide development of wood preservatives collectively known as [CCA (chromated copper arsenates), boosting the global use of wood in construction.
Important concerns have been raised in recent decades about the hazards posed by CCA treatments, both for humans and for the environment. These continue to be debated, as they must. But in assessing Kamesam’s career, we should keep in mind that he worked in an era before consciousness about the environmental effects of chemicals became widespread.
Moreover, his inventions in wood science and structural engineering had other salutary benefits for the environment that must be weighed against such hazards. They helped reduce the use of steel (with all the pollutive damage involved in its production). They also contributed to the conservation of forests. “A tree saved is a tree grown,” Kamesam wrote. “It is wood preservation that makes one tree serve the purpose of even four or five trees.”
From an economic perspective, it would be impressive even today if an Indian scientist based in India were to conduct applied research that resulted in patents whose rights were sold to a major global corporation for millions of dollars. It is that much more impressive that this happened in Kamesam’s case over eight decades ago.
From a sociological point of view, Sonti Kamesam was an unusual and interesting figure in 1930s to 1950s India. In an era when prominent Indian scientists were more theoretically oriented, he was a practical technologist, a tinkerer and an entrepreneur whose work has moulded our built environment in profound ways.
Marti G. Subrahmanyam is the Charles E. Merrill professor of finance, economics and international business, Stern School of Business, New York University. He is the eldest grandson of Sonti Kamesam.
Aparajith Ramnath is assistant professor, School of Arts and Sciences and Amrut Mody School of Management, Ahmedabad University.
The views expressed here are the authors’ own.