Today is Tanaka Hisashige‘s 213th birth anniversary. You may not have heard about him, but Google found it fitting to celebrate it with a special animated Doodle – and I found his achievements important enough to not only put him in my books, but also make him the first character my readers encounter. Yes, it’s Master Tanaka from the Prologue to The Shadow of Black Wings. Master inventor and brilliant designer of the late Edo period, the Karakuri Giemon and a man who may, in a long run, be responsible for the laptop you read this on (provided it’s a Toshiba laptop).
A self-taught genius at first, young Hisashige came to fame creating the karakuri - Japanese automatons, which were then all the rage among the aristocracy. An example of one is what you see in the doodle above. But the dolls were just a novelty, and not enough to make Tanaka famous. He moved to Kyoto to study Rangaku - the “Dutch Knowledge” – and quickly became one of its finest scholars.
His achievements were unparalleled at the time. With only limited access to the Western science, he reverse-engineered many devices, and created others from scratch, using just his ingenuity and some Dutch drawings. He built a steam locomotive and a steam ship, a reverberatory furnace and telegraphic instruments. His Myriad Year Clock, which plays such an important role in “The Shadow…”, was a world-class masterpiece of precision mechanics.
Like Brunel on the other side of the globe, Tanaka embodied his era of fast change and technological revolution. Even with the meagre means at his disposal at the time, he was creating things which easily matched the achievements of some of his Western contemporaries. A Google Doodle is the least we can do to commemorate his life.
And what does it all have to do with Toshiba? Well, Hisashige’s son, Tanaka Daikichi, continuing his father’s work, established in 1881 the Tanaka Engineering Works in Tokyo. The company moved to Shibaura district and changed its name to Shibaura Engineering Works and finally, in 1939 – to Tokyo Shibaura. To-Shiba. So yes, that laptop of yours? A direct descendant of Tanaka’s automatons and clocks!
The book “The Shadow of Black Wings” is now available on Amazon.jp