Tanaka Hisashige – Today’s Google Doodle

Today’s Google Doodle commemorates the 213th birthday of Tanaka Hisashige, a Japanese engineer and inventor during the late Edo and early Meiji periods. In his time, he was known as “the genius of mechanical wonders”. Some people refer to him as “the Thomas Edison of Japan”. He was famous for a number of things, but the Google Doodle celebrates the Karakuri Ningyō (mechanical dolls) he made.

If you’ve never heard of him, it’s worth reading his life story. He is one of the founders of the company that eventually became Toshiba and if you visit the “Toshiba Science Museum” site, there’s a fairly big section on Tanaka. Here’s an excerpt from the first page:

Toshiba’s founder, Hisashige Tanaka, was born the eldest son of a tortoiseshell craftsman in 1799. At the age of twenty-one, he performed at a local shrine festival with clockwork dolls he constructed himself. This display of technical wizardry created such a stir that he ended up traveling the length and breadth of the country as an itinerant entertainer. Eventually he settled down in Osaka to sell his inventions, including the extremely popular Mujin-to rapeseed-oil lamp that used a compressed air fueling system to burn extra long. Then he scaled further heights of technological ingenuity with Man-nen Jimeisho, the finest traditional Japanese-style clock ever made.

In 1854, Hisashige was invited by the Saga clan to help construct steamboats and telegraph equipment. In 1873, he moved to Tokyo to develop a telegraph system at the request of the new national government, which had grown out of the Meiji Restoration. Hisashige’s work helped the government meet its goals for economic development with infrastructure improvements in the communications network. Throughout his long life, Hisashige was always ready to meet new challenges. He was an inventor to the core and never lost his penchant for fine craftsmanship.

In many ways, his life story is one that can be found over and over in Japan and is very much tied to some deeply rooted concepts in the culture. I think, however, I’ll elaborate on that in a future post…

[EDIT added October 17] I thought I’d add a note about the “Thomas Edison of Japan” thing. Obviously, in recent years, Edison’s contributions have been greatly called into question; so, just to be clear, I’m not personally endorsing the idea of Hisashige as Edison-like and, as I replied to a friend on Facebook: it’s not the best of compliments to call him the “Edison of Japan”, but I think it was a title probably bestowed long before most people thought critically about Edison’s “contributions”

And, for your entertainment, The Oatmeal has some pretty strong feelings about Edison