Father of Innovation - Tanaka Hisashige

Father of Innovation - Tanaka Hisashige

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Father of Innovation - Tanaka Hisashige
Tanaka Hisashige (1799-1881) was a Japanese engineer and inventor during the late Edo and Meiji-era Japan. He is one of the founders of what later became Toshiba Corporation. He has been called the "Thomas Edison of Japan" or Karakuri Giemon.

Tanaka was born in Kurume, Chikugo province (present day Fukuoka Prefecture) as the eldest son of a tortoise shell craftsman. A gifted artisan, at the age of 14, he had already invented a loom. At 20 he made karakuri dolls, with hydraulic mechanism, capable of relatively complex movements, which were then much in demand by the aristocrats of Kyoto, daimyo in various feudal domains, and by the Shogunís court in Edo. At age 21, he was performing around the country at festivals with clockwork dolls he constructed himself.

In 1834, he relocated to Osaka, where he experimented in pneumatics, hydraulics and various forms of lighting based on rapeseed oil. However, he soon moved on to Kyoto, where he studied rangaku, or western learning, and astronomy. In 1851, he built a Myriad year clock which is now designated as an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government. With the development of the Sonno joi movement, the atmosphere in Kyoto became increasingly dangerous towards foreign influences and technology, and Tanaka was invited by Sano Tsunetami to the Saga Domain in Kyushu, where he was welcomed by Nabeshima Naomasa.

While in Saga, Tanaka designed and built Japanís first domestically made steam locomotive and steam warship. Although he had no previous experience in the field, he had access to a Dutch reference book, and had watched the demonstration of a steam engine conducted by the Russian diplomat Yevfimy Putyatin during his visit to Nagasaki in 1853.

He was also involved in the construction of a reverberatory furnace in Saga for the production of Armstrong guns. In 1864, he returned to his native Kurume Domain, where he assisted in the development of modern weaponry.

In 1873, six years after the Meiji Restoration, Tanaka, by then aged 74 and still energetic, was invited by Kubusho (the Ministry of Industries) to come to Tokyo to make telegraphs at the ministry's small factory. He relocated to the Ginza district in 1875 and rented the second floor of a temple in what is now Roppongi as a workshop which later evolved into his first company - Tanaka Seisakusho (Tanaka Engineering Works), the first manufacturer of telegraph equipment in Japan.

After his death in 1881, his son founded Tanaka Engineering Works (Tanaka Seizosho). The company changed its name after Tanakaís death to Shibaura Engineering Works (Shibaura Seizosho) in 1904, and after a merger in 1939 with Tokyo Denki became Tokyo Shibaura Denki, more commonly known today as Toshiba.

The word "Karakuri" means a "mechanical device to tease, trick, or take a person by surprise". It implies hidden magic, or an element of mystery.

Four main types of Karakuri exist: Butai Karakuri were used in theatre. Karakuri dolls were small and were played with in rooms. Dashi Karakuri were used in religious festivals. Karakuri Dansu were used to prevent treasures from being stolen from chests or drawers.

During the Edo-era, Japan was closed to the rest of the world. Despite its voluntary isolation, however, Japan adapted and transformed the Western automatons, which were fascinating to Descartes' world, giving him the incentive for his mechanist theories of organisms, as well as Frederick the Great, who loved playing with automatons and miniature wargames. This transmission of Western know-how happened through "Rangaku," or "Western Studies".