Meet the serial inventor from Kolkata
Dr Ramendra Lal Mukherjee has 30 international patents for instruments ranging from a device that can help detect skin diseases to a super telescope and a UV emitting device that kills microbes
It had to be a hoax. They searched interviewed hundreds of scientists in scores of countries before concluding that the ‘mother of all microscopes’ could not possibly exist. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) at Geneva therefore ruled against granting an international patent to Dr Ramendra Lal Mukherjee.
But the scientist had the reputation of being a serial inventor! He had been the recipient of awards including one as the best inventor from the Government of India in 2002. But his claim to have invented the world’s smallest microscope, which magnified objects a thousand times but cost as little as US $15 was not credible, WIPO ruled.
But the Controller of Intellectual Property Office headquartered in Kolkata was asked to invite the scientist to demonstrate the product within seven days. By then it was 2020 and Mukherjee did not have anything to show, he recalls. He had submitted his application in 2010; tired of the long and frustrating wait, he had dismantled the microscope. He was in the habit of making something, acquire a patent and then dismantling the product to use components for his next invention, he explained.
But he fished out his old drawings and recreated the gadget, packed it into a wooden box and walked into the office of the Controller of Intellectual Property to demonstrate the fully functional model. “In 48 hours flat, I received my patent in 2020 – 10 years after I had submitted the application,” the scientist tells me with satisfaction at his tiny workshop in Howrah on top of a post office building.
His father, who he lost when just 12 years old, was a manager in one of the jute mills. But though the family fell into hard times, he refuses to dwell on his struggles.
“I get excited when people think something is beyond a solution. My mind enjoys grappling with challenges; the greater the difficulty, more the fun,” the 59-year-old scientist’s eyes light up while describing this streak in him.
An excellent raconteur, he claims it all started when he was just four years old. His grandfather during a summer holiday had ordained that he and his siblings should take an afternoon siesta to keep them away from mischief. The high-ceilinged hall was dark, except for a crack in the door through which a ray of sunlight sneaked in.
The child’s eyes followed the beam; the ceiling seemed to be transformed like a cinema screen that showed the world outside, the dogs, the people, the carts, lorries, cows, everything. The room had become a large pin-hole camera.
That streak of light fired his imagination. Without the foggiest idea of what a pin-hole camera was, he wondered why the same effect couldn’t be produced on a smaller scale. His grandmother’s medicine box came in handy. A safety pin was used to puncture a pin hole for the light to enter from one side, a hole was punched at the top of the box for the eye to see inside the box. Oh yeah, the side of the box opposite the pin hole became a screen that showed the trees, the people, and everything outside. The world was in the palms of the four-year-old child.
It was in 2000 that Mukherjee first invented a ‘micro-microscope’ as he likes to call it. Over 50,000 of them have since then been sold by Mukherjee’s company HMRC, based in his home-town. Howrah has always been a hub of engineers and some of the finest workmen in the world. Legend has it that workmen in Howrah can reverse-engineer any metal part even without the original design.
The micro-microscope too has a remarkable back story that going all the way back to 1975 when he was a class-9 student in Shibpur SSPS Vidalaya, a Bengali-medium school. While toying with two pieces of lens, he discovered that things could be enlarged several times when they were coupled at a certain distance from each other. However, they had to be held steady.
‘Cuty,’ a popular brand of talcum powder at the time came in a tin tube. A contraption soon took shape as the lenses were fitted into the tube, which formed the body of the microscope. Batteries powered the light under the glass slides to illuminate and enlarge blood vessels of a mosquito. He had entered the big world of small things. He was 10 years old then. A career in electronics engineering was a logical progression, followed by a series of jobs in different organizations. But on Christmas day, 1997, he gave up his job and career in HCL to devote all his time to his passion and pastime.
“Jobs are extremely important for a middle-class family like ours, but we knew that we would lose him if he was kept away from his inventions,” quipped his wife indulgently, smiling affectionately at him.
There has been no looking back. On a cold November evening in 2019, Government of India’s department of Environmental Science called him up. The challenge was that in
three weeks he had to create microscopes which would detect microplastics in water
and ice. It was to be a part of the array of scientific instruments to be carried by the Indian team of scientists on an exploration mission to Antarctica.
“I didn’t ask for money. I just plunged into it to create two instruments – a 3D multifunction transmission electronic microscope and a 3D multifunction scanning electronic microscope. They were ready before the deadline,” he recalls with a childlike glee at his chaotic lab in Howrah.
He claims to have invented a powerful Ultra-Violet Sterilizer which emits 253.7 nanometer UV rays which would kill bacteria and viruses. Auditoriums and cineplexes are buying the product in scores to use it to sanitize halls before and after shows. The Birla Planetarium in Calcutta, he informs, had just bought 60 of them. He has also created a hand-held smart phone sized version that can be used by individuals to sanitize anything.
A hint of frustration creeps into his voice, as he talks about the resistance from the medical community towards some of his instruments like the skin analyzer, ENT and throat analyzer. A device that can be place on the human skin or simply in front of the open mouth and ear to show amazingly detailed images which can be saved in a computer. The images can be analyzed to diagnose hidden diseases and even detect cancer quite early.
“Doctors are reluctant to use this gadget as it will instantly show whether their prescribed medicines have been effective or not,” said Mukherjee and “that’s not good for their business” he laments. He is now planning to change the form factor of the device to something that users of skincare or beauty products can use to check their efficacy.
A short ride from his lab, his small two-roomed flat houses a telescope that dwarfs his living-cum-dining room. Using different grades of grinding powder, he has created sophisticated lenses from glass panels used for doors. A Mumbai-based firm developed the coating for those lenses which now fit into the over five-feet long 12-inch diameter 1600-mm (Focal Length) telescope.
“I could see Venus clearly with it,” he excitedly shows off his newest innovation. The good scientist is now waiting for clear skies to view the Milky Way, the Andromeda galaxy and the distant universe.
He has taken detailed pictures of the Sun. His sights are going beyond. From the microscopic world, Mukherjee has now set his eyes on viewing the big wide universe beyond our blue dot. The stars beckon him, but he is already a star among stars in his own right.