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Thumswamy Joseph David, himself an active inventor, is launching India's first professional association of inventors, The Inventors' Action Society. It focuses especially on India's "craftsmen inventors" who, armed with few degrees or institutional connections, are increasingly disadvantaged.

This profile below was prepared when T. J. David was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1989.


Thumswamy Joseph David, himself an active inventor, is launching India's first professional association of inventors, The Inventors' Action Society. It focuses especially on India's "craftsmen inventors" who, armed with few degrees or institutional connections, are increasingly disadvantaged.


David, 42, has more than 20 low-cost inventions to his credit in the field of appropriate technology. They include an animal-powered transmission system, a poultry care system, and a pumpless cooler. He is currently seeking to commercialize a pedal-harvester. The current custom-built models sell for Rs 12,000 (U.S. $650) as opposed to such available alternatives as a tractor-mounted reaper ($8,700) and the combine-harvester ($60,000). David sees two prime markets for this reaper: groups of reapers working in villages where they face low wages for their work and small (certainly tractorless) farmers in villages where the cost of reaping is high.

David is working on the pedal reaper both because he thinks it can enrich the lives of many poor people and, in his own words, "out of my joy and my happiness." He invents because he loves the craft. After all, he comments, "No one commanded the Wright brothers to make a plane."

David's creativity manifested itself early in his life. As a schoolboy he would take his friends' toys apart and put them together again. By 1970, he patched together his first invention _³ a copless loom, that did not require a shuttle. The following years saw a series of other inventions, and praise for his work poured in from the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC), the Ministry of Science and Technology, other government institutions and the private sector. The pedal-propelled harvester has been commended by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, the G.B. Pant Agriculture University, Nainital and the S.K.N. College of Agriculture, Jaipur.

However, despite all the evaluations and praise, David's reflections on his last years are sobering: "I have faced such an ordeal I am doubtful I live on this planet." He not only had to teach himself the science and engineering he uses, but he has had to learn how to deal with both markets and, especially intractable, bureaucracies set up to encourage invention.

David's intelligence and persistence permitted him to continue and to come to understand how the systems confronting him so very unsympathetically work, and what must be done if they are to be reformed so that India's inventors can help the country develop the grassroots technologies it needs.

His Inventors' Action Society will act as a support system and advocate for "craftsmen inventors". The society will respond to its clientele's wide service needs with a rich array of direct supports ranging from colleagueship for often lonely people to easy access to technical information, from counseling regarding possible sources of financing to an education program designed to encourage the press to help spread word of members' inventions (both a marketing boost for the member and broader public education regarding the value of "craftsmen inventors").

One of the society's most important functions will be to review and credential "craftsmen inventors" and their inventions. Big institutions, even when they would like to help, generally stall into permanent paralysis when confronted with the need to evaluate such an inventor and his or her invention. Their bureaucratic staff instinctively cringe when confronted with a file bereft of the credentials and institutional endorsements that provide protection when they do not truly understand the case. David is hopeful that the Society's peer review and certification will help the Industrial Development Bank implement more supportive policies.

It will also suggest and press for policy changes and new or improved programs in institutions it thinks should be more helpful.


The government will not respond without institutional stamps of approval. The research and development institutions will not give inventors access to their facilities or specialized equipment. The process of acquiring patents is long, expensive, tiring, and uncertain _³ and even then enforcement is all too often illusory. The inventor's bargaining position vis-a-vis potential funders is weak.

The institutions created to help inventors soon are populated with uncomprehending, risk-averse, heavily credentialed bureaucrats. They become de facto inaccessible to the independent inventor.


The easiest part of the society's two-part agenda is that of bringing together a group of independent inventors and organizing the mutual-help activities and common services they decide they most need. David has already built a solid core of initial members who are now meeting biweekly to do the society's work.

Trying to reform the bureaucratized institutions set up to help inventors will be slower and harder--but eventually could have major impact. David's first target is the NRDC, an institution with which he has wrestled for some years. The central government created it in the 1960s to stimulate indigenous invention, but it quickly became a typically cautious government-funding institution. It gives almost all its after-overhead resources to large, well-known, usually well-funded institutions.

What would David do to this NRDC if he became India's Prime Minister? "First, I would insist that at least 20 to 30 percent of the staff be inventors so they would understand."

He has a long list of other specific reforms he and his colleagues will be pressing through the society. Very important, he would like to rechannel a significant part of the NRDC's funds from investing in other public institutions to helping small entrepreneur inventors develop and then commercialize their ideas. By certifying inventors and inventions the society will reduce the risks for NRDC and its sister government agencies. He will also urge that access to simple labs and equipment be made easier and that some of the avoidable barriers be removed that make commercialization for individuals or small, uncapitalized groups so difficult.

David would also like to see competitive three-year fellowships to help individual inventors develop and launch especially promising and appropriate ideas; a technical magazine specifically designed to provide easier access to technical, institutional, and market information for the individual inventor; trade fairs to link inventors and their work with the business sector; and, perhaps, a referral service that would enable businesses to seek out and establish consultancy contracts with inventors working in an area of interest to a company.


David's father, a medical doctor, died when David was only five months old. His unlettered mother soon moved from Bangalore to Delhi, where the family struggled in great poverty to survive. His mother worked as a domestic servant.

David joined St. John's school in North Delhi, a boarding school for the poor run by priests. Bright enough to get two double promotions, he had to relinquish school after the fifth standard in order to give his aging mother a helping hand. He studied as a day scholar till the seventh standard, doing odd jobs on the side. Always enchanted by things mechanical, David made a sewing machine for his mother when he was 18 _³ the forerunner of over 20 inventions and 100 modifications. Inspired by the lives of great scientists _³ Newton, Edison, Einstein and the Curies _³ David retained belief in himself despite having to scramble without degrees or contacts near the bottom of the economic structure for years.

A pragmatist who feels all inventions should serve practical human needs, he has focused his work increasingly on the needs of India's poor rural majority.

David is married, is close to his brother and sister, and now helps to support his mother.