Tata, Jamsetji Nusserwanji

views updated

Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata

Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (1839–1904) was a pioneer of Indian industrialism as well as a noted philanthropist. In 1858, he joined his father's export firm and established branches in Japan, China, Europe, and the United States. He organized the first large-scale ironworks in India and endowed several schol arships.

Born in Navsari, India, on March 3, 1839, Tata was the only son of five children of Nasarwanji Ratanji Tata, a member of the Parsi religion and a descendant of a priestly family, and Jiverbai Cowasjee Tata. When Tata was thirteen years old, his father opened an export business in Bombay, India. In 1855, when he was sixteen, in accordance with Parsi custom, which encouraged early marriage, he married a ten-year-old girl named Berabai. They would later have a daughter, who died at the age of twelve, and two sons, Sir Dorabij Jamsetji and Ratan Jamsetji.

Expanded Tata & Co. to Asia

Tata attended Elphinstone College in Bombay from 1855 to 1858. He did so well there that the school refunded his fees. After his schooling, his father employed him in the family business. In December of 1859, Tata's father sent him on a business trip to Hong Kong, where he worked to open a branch of his father's firm, and remained until 1863. He established connections and buyers for the business; this was only the beginning of an expansion of the firm, called Tata & Co. and later renamed Tata & Sons. Through Tata's travel and work, the firm would eventually expand its reach to create branches in China, Japan, Paris, and New York, as well as in London.

In 1863, Tata began traveling to England, where he worked to establish an Indian Bank. This venture proved unsuccessful, largely because of bad timing; at the time, a financial crisis was brewing back in India, and the Tata firm was forced to declare bankruptcy. Part of this crisis was the result of the ending of the American Civil War; during the war, the American South did not produce much cotton, so demand for Indian cotton skyrocketed. Once the war was over and American production resumed, demand for the Indian product diminished. However, the Abyssinian war soon brought contracts for army clothing and supplies for the British-Indian Army, and these lucrative contracts allowed the firm to be resurrected. In 1871, Tata began to promote his Central India Spinning, Weaving and Manufacturing Company, Limited.

Adopted Innovations in Factories

In 1872, Tata returned to England to study the cotton industry there, specifically the cotton mills in Lancashire. He was interested in developing the still-primitive cotton industry in India. After examining the Lancashire mills, he decided to site an Indian cotton factory at Nagpur, and he opened his Empress cotton mill there on January 1, 1877; the factory received its name because on the same day, Queen Victoria of England was proclaimed Empress of the British Empire, which at the time included India. Later, Tata bought a troubled mill, the Dharamsi Cotton Mill at Coorla, near Bombay, and made it profitable, renaming it the Swadeshi ("own country") Mill. This mill was named after a political movement, which promoted the use of Indian-made product, as opposed to products imported from Britain, and its founding marked an upsurge in nationalistic feeling among Indians, who wanted to become independent of Britain. The mill was supported by Indian shareholders, and it soon produced cloth that was exported to China, Korea, Japan, and the Middle East.

According to the Dictionary of National Biography, Tata's textile mills "were soon recognized to be the best managed of Indian-owned factories." Tata kept a close eye on the factories, and continually made improvements in order to increase their production as well as to improve the conditions for their workers. Tata, in moves that were far ahead of his time, hired his managers carefully, and instituted policies that gave workers training, guaranteed pensions and tips, medical care, accident compensation, and daycare for women employees who had children. He also devoted his time to improving the quality of the cotton itself. At the time, Indian cotton was rather coarse, so Tata imported different strains of cotton which yielded longer, finer, and softer fibers. One of these types of cotton came from Egypt, and although it was difficult to get the plants to grow in the Indian climate, Tata persisted despite the fact that government agriculturists told him the project was doomed to failure. He eventually succeeded, and even published a pamphlet titled Growth of Egyptian Cotton in India. Another pamphlet described how the supply of skilled laborers could be increased.

Tata noted that freight charges for shipping between Bombay and the company's branches in China and Japan were eating into the company's profits. At the time, this shipping route was monopolized by three companies, which kept prices high, so Tata turned to the Japanese Steam Navigation Company (Nippon Yusen Kaisha) for cheaper shipping. As a result, the three monopolizing companies fought back, and Tata spent a great deal of money to prove that their monopoly was hurting Indian trade. He eventually won, and in June of 1896 the freight fees were reduced to a reasonable and competitive level. In addition to fighting for fair freight charges, Tata also opposed taxes placed on Indian cotton products.

Tata realized that the industrial revolution was a key element in industrial success, and he was determined to take advantage of the new advances in technology and methods. At the time, railroads and telegraphs were beginning to be built in order to link various regions of India with one another. Tata incorporated these inventions into his industrial empire, and he also concentrated on enhancing his industries by incorporating the iron and steel industry, electric power generation, and technical education.

Began Iron and Steel Industry

In 1901, Tata turned his attention to the Indian iron industry, which, like the cotton industry, was largely undeveloped; at the time, iron was produced on a very small, local scale, largely by families of craftspeople. He employed English and American surveyors, most notably American Charles Page Perin, who spent years examining the Indian geology for iron deposits. In addition, he traveled to Europe and the United States to get technical advice on the process of making steel. Tata wanted to refine iron ore on a large, factory-based scale, and he invested large sums in the project. Although he would die before this scheme was realized, on August 26, 1907, his sons registered the Tata Iron and Steel Company, sited in Sakchi, about 150 miles west of Calcutta. The manufacturing process drew on coalfields in Bengal, which had rich ore as well as plentiful supplies of water necessary for processing it. The company grew rapidly, and by 1911 included railways connecting the factory to the iron and coal beds, and was producing about 70,000 tons of iron per year. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, the entire industry would support 60,000 workers and their dependants.

Another idea Tata was noted for was his suggestion that India make use of the extremely heavy seasonal rainfall that occurred each year in parts of the country to create hydroelectric power that would fuel factories in Bombay. On February 8, 1911, the Governor of Bombay laid the foundation for this project, which involved the creation of several dams to hold the water.

Tata also built the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, which cost a quarter of a million dollars, a huge sum at the time; the hotel was considered the best in India. Tata was not interested in running the hotel; he built it solely to attract visitors to India. On his far-ranging travels, Tata bought many of the hotel's furnishings himself, including the latest European amenities—a soda and ice factory, washing and polishing machines, a laundry, elevators, and an electric generator. The hotel, which opened in 1903, was the first building in Bombay to be lit by electricity.

Became a Philanthropist

Tata also improved the architecture of Bombay, and provided well-built suburban homes for workers. He was generous with his profits, and created scholarships for young students. Although originally these scholarships were open only to Parsis, in 1894 they were broadened to allow young Indians from any background to study in Europe. In September of 1898, he offered the Indian government a large sum, as well as fourteen of his buildings and four land properties, to establish a postgraduate institute for scientific research. Although this plan, like many of his ideas, was not realized during his lifetime, his sons established the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore, which aimed to apply scientific ideas and methods to Indian arts and industries.

Tata's success in transforming Indian industry went hand in hand with his desire to make India an economically self-sufficient country that was no longer dependent on Britain. As a result, the British government of India felt his success was a threat to their power, and they opposed many of his projects, including his founding of the Indian steel industry and his development of housing in the suburbs of Bombay. This opposition did not stop him from going ahead with his plans.

In the spring of 1904, while visiting Germany, Tata became seriously ill and died in Nauheim, Germany, on May 19. He was buried in the Parsi cemetery in Woking, England. After his death, his sons expanded Tata & Sons into a vast industrial complex, and endowed a cancer research hospital in its name. Tata's brother, who was also involved in the business, endowed social science departments at London University and the London School of Economics.

Far-reaching Imagination and Powerful Insight

Tata was notable for his willingness to adopt innovations and use them to improve not only his business but the lives of Indian people. He also made innovation part of his daily life. He was the first man in India to use rubber tires on his carriage, and the first to drive an automobile in the city of Mumbai. As the Dictionary of National Biography noted, Tata characteristically showed "first, a broad imagination and keen insight, next a scientific and calculating study of the project and all that it involved, and finally a high capacity for organization. His personal tastes were of the simplest kind, and he scorned publicity or self-advertisement." His memory is celebrated at the Tata Central Archives, housed in the Tata Management Training Centre in Pune, India. The Archives traces the history of the Tata firm, which is still prominent in India, through documents, photos, medals, and letters. One of his descendants, J.R.D. Tata, wrote on the Tata firm's Web site that the family's business philosophy has not changed: "The wealth gathered by Jamsetji Tata and his sons in half a century of industrial pioneering formed but a minute fraction of the amounts by which they enriched the nation. The whole of that wealth is held in trust for the people and used exclusively for their benefit. The cycle is thus complete: what came from the people has gone back to the people many times over."


Almanac of Famous People, 8th edition, Gale Group, 2003.

Lee, Sidney, ed., Dictionary of National Biography Supplement, January 1901-December 1911, Oxford University Press, 1951.

Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 1995.


Times (London, England), September 4, 1925.


"India's Tryst with Industry Comes Alive at House of Tatas,"Estart.com,http://www3.estart.com/India/finance/tata.html (January 1, 2004).

"Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata," Mumbai/Bombay Pages,http://theory.tifr.res.in/Bombay/persons/jamsetji-tata.html (January 1, 2004).

"Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata," Tata.com,http://www.tata.com/0_b_drivers/jamsetji.htm (January 1, 2004).