HOW A MERE BLOCK OF ICE SHAPED LIFE IN 3 COUNTRIES

 

By ARVIND BANAVALIKER

This first Japanese delegation (they called it "embassy") had been invited to a cocktail party in SanFrancisco. The year was 1860. They had just crossed the Pacific and were on their way to Washington,the capital of the United States. Before that, for 200 years, Japan had been completely cut off from allcontacts with the rest of the world. This prohibition was so extreme and so complete that, quite apart fromordinary citizens, even shipwrecked sailors or fishermen, if rescued by foreign vessels and brought back to Japanese ports, were considered to have been contaminated by foreign influence and were refused permisssion to re-enter.

All that had now changed because from 1850 onwards, Japan had begun to come under increasing pressure from Western and other powers for its ports to be opened up for trade. The Portugese, the Dutch, the British, the Russians and the Americans were all bearing down heavily upon them. In 1854, Commodore Perry had just completed the second official visit of the U.S.Navy to Japan. His fleet comprised two sailing ships and one ship powered by steam. One of the ships brought as gifts telegraphic equipment, a steam railway locomotive, carriages

and some tracks. All this was technology Japan had never before seen or dreamed possible.

At this cocktail party in San Francisco, the Japanese were served champagne in glasses with some ice in it. They had never before seen ice in summer. Some actually choked on it, some spat it out, others got it down their throats with great difficulty. Today, some 140 years later, as we all know, Japan produces some of the finest refrigeration and airconditioning equipment in the whole world. How did this come about? What lessons had the Japanese learned from that first encounter with ice which we in India have still failed to comprehend?

Just a few decades before the Japanese arrived, the Americans had been on a learning curve themselves.

Knowledge of modern science as a discipline and some of the skills and technology that went with it had undoubtedly been brought over by European immigrants. But much technology, simple technology at that, had been developed by the Americans themselves. One such technology was the ice industry. It may not have been at the cutting edge of science but it did represent a pioneering and uniquely American philosophy: simple technology capable of satisfying the needs of a large number of consumers — precursor of today’s mass consumer society.

Frederick Tudor was an entrepreneur in Boston. All that he did was to arrange to cut ice into uniform blocks and to use sawdust for purposes of insulation. But he also arranged for ready availability and large scale regional marketing. This simple industry turned out to have many important consequences. In a curious way, it brought home to Americans the idea of climate control. At the same time, for the first time, they realized the possibilities of man’s mastery over nature. Earlier, Americans, like peoples elsewhere, had considered that nature was supreme, could not be interfered with in any way and would always prevail. In respect of a basic occupation like farming involving hundreds of thousands of people across the country, Americans, like the English people and others, had implicitly believed: "’Tis not the husbandman, but the good weather, that makes the corn grow." Tudor’s ice industry made possible the cold storage of meat and transformed the meat industry into a national and year-round industry. This in turn led to the modern concepts of specialization in foodstuffs and marketing on a national scale.

Even on an international scale! One of the imports from the United States into India was a consignment of apples preserved over the long voyage by blocks of ice. This was in 1833 in Calcutta. Not the apples but the ice caused a sensation. Later, ice was also imported into Bombay and Madras. The consignment to Bombay landed in 1834 and the "coolies" who carried it ashore complained that it had "scalded" their backs. In Bombay, a storehouse was built for ice at a cost of Rs. 10,000. The building was known as Ice House and existed at the site of the present Cama Institute near Lion Gate. Sir Byramjee Jijibhoy served iced drinks at his city residence on what is now

D.N. Road.

Thus we in India made our first acquaintance with manufactured ice long before the Japanese. We also got our first textile mill about 17 years before Japan and our first railway about 20 years before Japan. What is more, we had the British swirling all around us in India and at that time, Great Britain with its empire was the dominant industrial nation on earth. But we signally failed to recognise what the Japanese instinctively did in 1854 when they first saw the steamship and the steam railway engine and a few years later, the products of the simple ice industry, namely, the essential nature of, and what is even more important, the inevitability of modern science and technology.

Even today, we remain rooted in our old ways, we cling to our old religions and we battle with each other in their name. We persist with ritualistic, medieval ways of thinking and utterly fail to understand that modern science and technology and it alone can transform a country. It began with simple things like ice but today Japan is an economic superpower and boldly competes with our country (one sixth of all humanity) for a permanent seat in the Security Council.