Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia

Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia

1808 - 1877

Country India

Specialisms Marine steam engineering

Career highlights

Why you might have heard of Ardaseer Cursetjee

Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia was the first Indian member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

Career

At the age of 14, Cursetjee entered the government service in Bombay, as an assistant to his uncle, Nourojee Jamsetjee, who at the time was master builder in the dockyard.

In 1828, after studying for six years while serving in the dockyard, Cursetjee qualified as a naval architect. He was placed in charge of the shipbuilding yard at Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited, Bombay, where he designed and oversaw the construction of several vessels.

During this time, he became interested in the potential of steam engineering. Still working at the Mazagon, he arranged to study steam engineering at the Royal Mint, a branch of the Royal Mint of London, under Captain McGillvary, the chief engineer. This led him to constructing his first steam engine and boiler of about 1 horse-power, the first to have been constructed in Bombay. The engine was used to pump water at his own home, and also to demonstrate the potential uses of steam power to invited audiences.

Cursetjee became assistant builder at the Mazagon in October 1833, a role created especially for him. He continued with his interest in steam engineering by persuading his father to acquire a 10 horse-power marine engine, which arrived in Bombay in parts. Cursetjee singlehandedly fitted this engine to a ship called ‘Indus’ which had been built under his direction.

Cursetjee travelled to England in 1839, by arrangement with the East India Company. Settling in London, with the approval of the India Office, he began working in the offices of John and Samuel Seaward’s engineering shops at Limehouse.

He was introduced to the President of ICE, James Walker, and began to attend meetings at the institution, accompanying his friend Samuel Seaward. He took particular interest in the advantages of long and short connecting rods for marine engines, illustrating his views in an elaborate drawing which he presented to ICE.

Cursetjee became the first Indian member of ICE when he was elected an Associate Member on 24 March 1840.

Supported by testimonials from many eminent marine engineers of the day, Cursetjee was appointed as chief engineer and inspector of machinery at the newly established Bombay Steam Factory.

On his return to India in May 1841, he was put in charge of the steam branch of the Indian Navy. He was the first Indian to attain such a high position, supervising over a hundred English engineers, aided by one chief assistant, four European foremen, a staff of 100 European engineers and boiler makers, and about 200 Indian military engineers.

In the early 1850s, Cursetjee travelled again to England and to America, where he spent time selecting wood-cutting machines to be sent home to Bombay.

He returned to Bombay, taking up the position of superintending engineer at the Indus Flotilla Company in Karachi in 1858, where he remained for two years before retiring through ill health.

55 Sheen Road, Richmond, Cursetjee Wadia's home in London. Image credit: English Heritage

55 Sheen Road, Richmond, Cursetjee Wadia's home in London. Image credit: English Heritage

Fascinating facts

Cursetjee’s favourite hobby was to introduce innovation and technology to Bombay (Mumbai), India. Over his lifetime, he introduced gas lighting, sewing machines, photography, steam pump-driven irrigation and electroplating to the city and its inhabitants.

In May 2021, English Heritage honoured Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia with a blue plaque marking his home at 55 Sheen Road, Richmond, London, where he and his British family lived for the last 10 years of his life.

Membership of other bodies and committees

First Indian Fellow of the Royal Society (1841)

British Association and Society of Arts

Non-resident member of the Royal Asiatic Society

Personal life

Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia was born 6 October 1808 to the Lougee family, heads of the Parsee caste in India, who served the East India Company for more than a century as officials in the Bombay Dockyard.

He lived in England from late 1839 to November 1840, and again in the early 1850s.

Though legally married in India, he set up home and spent the later part of his life with Marian Barber, whom he had met in London. They had two children.

Cursetjee retired to Richmond, England, where he stayed for the rest of his life, surrounded by family and friends. He died on 16 November 1877.

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