Edison and Japan

At first glance, Gakken’s development of kits based on Thomas Edison’s inventions is a simple one of historical reality. Edison experimented a lot, and his patents cover many of the common household electrical appliances of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. So, if Gakken wants to sell a kit based on something like the phonograph, they’d have little choice but to at least mention Edison in passing, if not re-releasing one of his designs outright. So, on the surface, it looks like a no-brainer.

However, a recent article in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper indicates that there may be a slightly deeper tie than that. The connection is the filament that Edison chose for his new electric incandescent lightbulb. According to the wiki entry, the final selection of carbonized bamboo came from “his recollection of the fibers of a bamboo fishing pole he had used once”. In fact, Edison was a big fan of the “shotgun approach” – that is, try everything under the sun and use whatever works best by accident. He had sent out scouts around the globe to pick samples of everything they stumbled across and send those back to Menlo Park. In total, he experimented with over 6,000 materials, including (supposedly) 1,200 species of bamboo (there are only 1,100 species known) before settling on the madake bamboo from the groves in Yawata, in Kyoto Prefecture. While the wiki entry states that the patent was granted in 1880 – and a few months afterward that he found the bamboo fibers that burned over 1,250 hours – the Yomiuri article states that the madake bamboo discovered by a scout burned 2,450 hours. It was then specifically the bamboo from Yawata that was used exclusively in the Edison Electric Light Company (formed in 1878) from roughly 1884 tol 1894, when they were replaced with cellulose filaments.

An earlier story ran in Cleveland.com also referencing Yawata. According to both articles, Yawata has several monuments to Edison scattered around the city, and there is a 1-room museum within Rakusai Bamboo Park that offers a little more detail on the Edison connection. Unfortunately, right now the park’s English website is under construction. There’s a Welcome to Kyoto page in English that gives more detail regarding Edison’s impact on Yawata, with photos of the area. Interestingly, I doubt any English textbooks mention that several Japanese had worked at Edison’s labs, including “Iwadare Kunihiko [who] founded Nippon Electric Company “NEC”. [And] Fujioka Ichisuke [who] founded “Toshiba”. In 1925, [Fujioka] improved the electric bulbs which were being manufactured with the technology of Western Electric and invented non-glare incandescent electric light bulbs in 1925. They were sold with the “Mazda” brand.”

The Cleveland.com article mentions a festival held in Yawata at the end of July, but I can’t find an English page describing it. The Yomiuri article is written primarily for the Shinto shrines in the Kyoto are that are dedicated to worshiping Edison’s name (Shinto recognizes that “great men” can have great spiritual energy and allows them to be deified after death). At one time, there reportedly was an Edison sect that prayed to him. Japan as a whole recognizes Edison as “the King of Inventors”. As such, Gakken’s decision to replicate several of his inventions as kits may spring from this relationship.


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