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The legend of Charles Page Perin

Harish Bhat | Updated on July 11, 2021

Title: Tata Stories: 40 Timeless Tales to Inspire YouAuthor: Harish BhatPublisher: Penguin Random House IndiaPrice: ₹599

This engineer from New York helped set up Tata Steel. Find a collection of little known tales in ‘Tata Stories’

Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, dreamt of a huge, modern steel plant for India way back in the 1880s. He was convinced that steel was essential for the development of his beloved country — for the building of railways, buildings, bridges and other important infrastructure.

Given his keen interest in this subject, he kept a book full of newspaper cuttings on the mineral resources of India with every detail of where they could be found.

Most people were sceptical of his dream. Famously, Sir Frederick Upcott, at that time the chief commissioner for the Indian Railways, is reported to have sneered at this enterprise by saying, ‘Do you mean to say that Tatas propose to make steel rails to British specifications? Why, I will undertake to eat every pound of steel rail they succeed in making.’

Persuasive man

But Jamsetji Tata was a determined and persuasive man. He met the British Secretary of State for India, Lord George Hamilton, in the year 1902, and managed to convince him that a steel plant would be very useful for the development of the country.

But now a big question faced him — from where would he obtain the expertise required for the manufacture of steel? India did not possess the capability, so Jamsetji decided that he would bring the world’s best expertise to the country. In his heart of hearts, he would have known that it was no easy task to attract the foremost global technologists to the heartlands of an underdeveloped nation. That hardly deterred him in his vision for India.

He set sail for the USA, home to the world’s finest iron and steel industry at the time, in September 1902. Eventually, after surveying Alabama, Chattanooga and Chicago, he reached Pittsburgh, famous for its iron and steel industry.

There, he met Julian Kennedy, one of the world’s foremost metallurgical engineers of that time. Julian Kennedy listened to Jamsetji Tata’s scheme, warned him that this was a costly project, and then suggested that the person most qualified to help him undertake the geological work required to start a steel plant in India was Charles Page Perin, an eminent consulting engineer in New York.

Off to New York

Jamsetji immediately travelled to New York, where Perin had a flourishing practice. He was set on meeting him and attracting him to India, however difficult this task should prove to be. To see what happened next, we read the notes of Charles Page Perin, who vividly described his first encounter with Jamsetji Tata: I was poring over some accounts in the office when the door opened, and a stranger in a strange garb entered. He walked in, leaned over my desk, and looked at me fully a minute in silence. Finally, he said in a deep voice, ‘Are you Charles Page Perin ?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He stared at me again silently for a long time. Then he slowly said: ‘I believe I have found the man I have been looking for. Julian Kennedy has written to you that I am going to build a steel plant in India. I want you to come to India with me, to find suitable iron ore and coking coal and the necessary fluxes. I want you to take charge as my consulting engineer. Mr Kennedy will build the steel plant wherever you advise, and I will foot the bill. Will you come to India with me?’ I was dumbfounded, naturally. But you don’t know what character and force radiated from Tata’s face. And kindliness, too. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘yes, I will go.’ And I did.

I have reflected on this remarkable story so many times. An unknown Indian merchant attracting the world’s best consulting engineer from the great city of New York to the jungles of eastern India to set up a steel plant in an unknown location, all in his very first encounter. That strength of character and force which radiated from Jamsetji Tata’s face so powerfully and magnetically that morning could only have come from his abiding love for his country. When you love your country so dearly that you are willing to go around the world searching for the keys to its development, when you are willing to set aside your riches to work unconditionally for its progress, then, I say, the world falls at your feet. There is no greater force on the face of this earth.

Charles Page Perin came to India. Inspired by Jamsetji Tata, he worked most willingly in places as far-flung as the Dhalli and Rajhara hills. He helped Jamsetji Tata and his sons establish Tata Steel at Sakchi, which was later renamed Jamshedpur. When the company faced some initial difficulties with its open hearth furnaces, Perin helped resolve these problems too. On 16 February 1912, the first ingot of steel successfully rolled out of the Tata plant. It was steel of the finest quality.

Helped in war effort

In fact, during World War I, Tata Steel supplied significant quantities of steel to help in the Allied war effort. By that time, Jamsetji Tata had already passed away. His son, Dorabji Tata, recalled the British chief commissioner’s sneering statement, and is reported to have said that if Sir Frederick Upcott had carried out his undertaking, he would have had some ‘slight indigestion’.

Today, more than a century later, Tata Steel stands proud, as one of the finest steel companies the world has ever known. There is an interesting footnote to this story. Perin’s wife also accompanied him to India later, perhaps encouraged by his description of his new boss, Jamsetji Tata.

She was very keen on education. So, to pay tribute to her memory, the first school in Jamshedpur was established in 1915 and named in her honour as the Mrs KeokeMonroe Perin Memorial (KMPM) School. Today, Jamshedpur is among the cities with the highest literacy rates in India.

This excerpt of ‘Tata Stories: 40 Timeless Tales to Inspire You’ has been published with special permission from Penguin Random House India

Published on July 11, 2021

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