The son of an artisanal carver of tortoise shells; an early inventor of mechanical devices; the renowned creator of automata, lamps, ice machines and planetariums; the designer of the one-of-a-kind Myriad Year Clock; and a participant in the modernization process that turned Japan into an industrial and technological power. This is the life and miracles of Hisashige Tanaka, the “Japanese Edison” of the nineteenth century.
In 2004, the Japanese government undertook the construction of an exact replica of a device that has been designated a national cultural asset, the Mannen Jimeishou or Myriad year clock. It is an extraordinarily ingenious six-faced spring-driven clock standing 63cm high, weighing 38kg and capable of running for an entire year when fully wound. Each one of the six faces shows a different temporal representation, among them a traditional Japanese clock, a “western” clock, the lunar phases, the solar displacement…
The task involved more than one hundred of the best specialists in the country who, over the course of one year, meticulously studied the thousands of parts of the original mechanism and manufactured specific machinery to produce more of the same. Even so, some components ended up being impossible to replicate.
The most unheard of aspect is that, under the microscope, it was revealed that the innumerable tiny gears of the original clock were handmade, each tooth polished one by one and then adjusted to fit perfectly together, a work so exquisite that it rivalled and even surpassed those designed by computer.
The creator of this marvel of mechanical technology was Hisashige Tanaka (1799-1881), also known as “the Thomas Edison of Japan” because of his innumerable inventions.
Inventor from childhood
Tanaka was born in Kurume, a city in southwestern Japan. He was the son of a tortoise shell craftsman, who from childhood was fond of creating ingenious devices. When just 9 years old, he surprised his school with an inkwell case with a clever opening mechanism and at age 14 he invented a loom that allowed complex designs to be made that would modernize the textile industry of his city.
At the age of 20, he began to build his first karakuri dolls, small automaton dolls that, at the time, caused a furore among the Japanese nobility. He constructed the first models with sophisticated mechanisms powered by water pumps and pressurized air, and they proved to be a success, with creations as well known as “The Little Archer” or the “Doll that serves tea.”
After convincing his father to free him from the responsibility of continuing with the family business, a role which fell to him as the first-born son, he devoted the following years to touring the country and exhibiting his increasingly famous dolls, a tour in which he earned the nickname of Karakuri Giemon, “the genius of mechanical wonders.”
When the karakuri dolls went out of fashion, Tanaka opted to settle in Kyoto and continued to develop new mechanical devices, such as a powerful fire-fighting water pump or a type of oil lamp that was more durable and luminous—thanks to its fuel injection mechanism powered by compressed air—that allowed him to reap great success.
The next few years were devoted to expanding his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy—something that would result in the first planetarium in Japan— and investigating and unravelling the secrets of the European mechanical watches that were arriving in Japan. And in 1848, when he felt ready, he embarked on his great masterpiece, the Myriad year clock, on which he would spend the next three years of his life. When completed, the clock was so impressive that it would elevate him to the status of greatest national inventor and allow him to live the following years cruising in the slipstream of his creation, producing equally sophisticated models, although simpler, more practical and easier to sell.
A convulsive period in Japan
But around him things were changing. Japan was going through a convulsive period and, after a brief civil conflict, the old regime assumed power and the country was plunged into a period of isolation and traditionalism in which everything that had to do with progress and the West and its technology fell under suspicion. Kyoto became a dangerous place for men like Tanaka, who moved to the quieter city of Saga. There, with the conviction that technology should be useful for people, he continued to create marvels, such as the first Japanese machine for manufacturing artificial ice.
Also, impacted by the disembarkation of the armed fleet of the American commodore Matthew Perry, he began to work on the development of inventions with military applications to defend his country. Based on the technologies introduced by the Western invaders, he built (among other things) the first Japanese steam warship and a new type of cannon.
These inventions, together with a shift in power and the restoration of the openness of the Meiji regime, reconciled Tanaka with the government. In 1873, already 73 years old, the Department of Industry, responsible for promoting the modernization and industrialization of the country, appointed him to develop a new and efficient telegraphic communications system that would connect all of Japan. And to fulfil this purpose, Tanaka founded his only company, the Tanaka Seizo-sho (Tanaka engineering company), the first producer of telegraph equipment in Japan.
In 1939, long after the inventor’s death (in 1881), the company—renamed Shibaura Seisaku-sho—merged with the other major Japanese electric company (Tokyo Denki) and Tokyo Shibaura Denki was born, or simply, Toshiba: the main Japanese corporation at that time and currently one of the largest electrical and electronic equipment companies in the world.