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Shivkar Talpade, the Forgotten Indian Who Actually Invented the First Aircraft

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Shivkar Talpade, an Indian flew the first airplane in 1895, eight years before the Wright Brothers

Shivkar Talpade, an Indian flew the first airplane in 1895, eight years before the Wright Brothers

Did the Wright Brothers Invent the First Aircraft?

The Wright brothers need no introduction, at least in the field of aviation. On December 17, 1903, the two brothers created history by flying the first powered airplane which stayed aloft for 12 seconds and covered 120 feet on its inaugural flight. It was a much-publicized event that undoubtedly changed the course of history.

But were they the first to fly an airplane? No. An unknown Indian named Shivkar Bapuji Talpade accomplished the feat eight years before the Wright brothers did. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence (or publicity) to substantiate whether Talpade succeeded.

But the fact remains that he attempted to do it much before the Wright brothers, a brave attempt that got lost in the dusty annals of history.

Talpade’s plane was named Marutsakha. Marut means ‘air’ in Sanskrit, and Sakha refers to ‘friend’. Marutsakha, meant friend of wind, an apt name for an airplane.

There was no proper media coverage when Talpade came up with the invention, and the only reference to his invention and works comes from historian Pratap Velkar in his book Maharashtracha Ujwal Itihaas which was written about 20 years ago. As Velkar says in his book.

"By the time I was growing up, Talpade had been long dead, and the house had been sold to a Catholic family. But my father would always point to the house and tell us how Talpade had gone about creating his aircraft and demonstrated its live performance at Chowpatty beach Mumbai. While I agree, we have very little evidence to say whether Talpade was successful or not in creating a flying machine. But what is interesting is that someone way back then had tried."

The first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer. December 17, 1903

The first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer. December 17, 1903

Little Is Known About Talpade

Much of Shivkar Bapuji Talpade's life is cloaked in mystery and obscurity, and our only reference comes through the work of the famous Mumbai Historian Pratap Velkar.

Velkar himself lived in Girgaum in South Mumbai, just two buildings from where Talpade’s family lived. He interviewed people living around Talpade’s time and scanned the blurred historical records available, painstakingly collecting the facts and weaving together an exciting tale of perseverance, brilliance, and determination.

As per Velkar, Talpade is believed to have been born in 1864 in the Pathare Prabhu community in a South Mumbai home. He worked as an instructor in the art and craft department of Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai. That was when he got interested in making a piece of equipment that could fly.

Talpade was a voracious reader and a keen experimenter. In his craft workshop at the art school, Talpade used to spend hours thinking about the motion of wheels while making model cars and also drawings birds.

He was also a great fan of Thomas Alva Edison, who flew the first balloon, said to be one of the initial achievements in aviation. Velkar paints Talpade as a man with fire in his belly who wanted to do something different from his mundane daily job.

Talpade is believed to have been born in 1864 in the Pathare Prabhu community in a South Mumbai home.

Talpade is believed to have been born in 1864 in the Pathare Prabhu community in a South Mumbai home.

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Making a Plane Became His Obsession

While researching for his book, Velkar came across a series of essays written by one of Talpade's students, P Satawlekar. From Satawlekar, he learned that Talpade was quite obsessed with building his plane and had invested a lot of his personal money in the pursuit. His friends and relatives called him ‘foolish,’ but he persisted.

Talpade’s brief moment of fame came when he got an opportunity to showcase his plane at the Chowpatty beach in Mumbai.

As Velkar about Talpade's plane, or marutsakha as he called it,

Talpade's marutsakha was a cylindrical structure made of bamboo. The structure was filled with liquid mercury. When the mercury reacted with sunlight, it released hydrogen. And because hydrogen is lighter than air, it helped the aircraft fly. But the plane did not get very high or stay up too long. It rose to just a small height and crashed within minutes,"

It was hardly a well-publicized event. There was a small crowd with a few curious onlookers and some friends of Talpade who had come to encourage him. The plane crashed along with the plane, Talpade’s dreams also took a nosedive.

Talpade was finally remembered when a Bollywood director Vibhu Puri made a film Hawaizaada on his life, starring actors Ayushmann Khurrana, Mithun Chakraborty, and Pallavi Sharda in lead roles.

Talpade was finally remembered when a Bollywood director Vibhu Puri made a film Hawaizaada on his life, starring actors Ayushmann Khurrana, Mithun Chakraborty, and Pallavi Sharda in lead roles.

Talpade Was Forgotten

After the failure of the plane, Talpade tried to raise funds by approaching the then Maharaja of Baroda and even some businessmen in Mumbai. He was unsuccessful, and the damaged plane gathered dust for several years sitting on the beach, becoming yet another curiosity for the children playing on the beach.

Ironically, Talpade’s efforts were never noticed or appreciated, while on the other hand, the Wright brothers got 25,000-dollar support from the US Army to propel their venture forward. And as we all know, one created history and the other got obliterated into the dusty annals of history. Talpade passed away in 1916, heartbroken and as an unhonoured inventor who never got his due.

It was only six years ago Talpade was finally remembered when Bollywood director Vibhu Puri made a film Hawaizaada on his life, starring actors Ayushmann Khurrana, Mithun Chakraborty, and Pallavi Sharda in lead roles.

The movie is set in Bombay in 1895 and tells the story of a boy, considered good for nothing, who goes on to make the world’s first unmanned aircraft. After India’s independence, Marutsakha (the aircraft) was exhibited in the Vile Parle Exhibition (Bombay), and Hindustan Aeronautical Limited has maintained all research work of Talpade.

It is time we salute this forgotten gem of India and give him his rightful place in history.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan

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