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Tanaka Hisashige - Famous Inventor

: Tanaka Hisashige
: 16-October-1799
: 7-November-1881
: Japan
: Rangaku, or western learning, and astronomy
: Engineer and Inventor

About Inventor

Tanaka Hisashige was a Japanese engineer and inventor who founded in 1875 what became the Toshiba Corporation during the late Edo and Meiji period in Japan. He has been called the "Thomas Edison of Japan" or Karakuri Giemon.

Early Life & Career

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, autonomous dolls powered by hydraulics,capable of relatively complex movements, which were then much in demand by the aristocrats of Kyoto, daimyo in various feudal domains, and by the Sh?gun’s 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 Sonn? j?i 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 Ky?sh?, where he was welcomed by Nabeshima Naomasa.

While in Saga, Tanaka designed and built Japan’s 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. The company changed its name after Tanaka’s death to Shibaura Engineering Works in 1904, and after a merger in 1939 with Tokyo Denki became Tokyo Shibaura Denki, more commonly known today as Toshiba.


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