Japan’s Past Strides in Technology: Preserving Key Records for Posterity

Science Technology

The National Museum of Nature and Science maintains a list of “Essential Historical Materials for Science and Technology,” each year registering important technologies that have had major impacts in the history of science and daily life and should be conveyed to future generations. Here we introduce selected entries that highlight Japan’s achievements as a nation of technology.

The “Essential Historical Materials for Science and Technology” project aims to survey, preserve, and utilize materials concerning historically important industrial technology. This project is being undertaken by the National Museum of Nature and Science so as to preserve Japan’s technological legacy for the future. The project considers not only the importance of materials in terms of their place in the historical development of science and technology, but also their impact on people’s lives, society, and culture.

The Center of the History of Japanese Industrial Technology, which is in charge of this project, conducts research in two main areas: (1) comprehensive studies of historical industrial technology materials and (2) systematic studies focusing on specific technical fields, examining the history of their development through the work of the engineers who were involved.

Items that are identified in these studies are registered as “Essential Historical Materials for Science and Technology” after review by an internal committee and external panel of experts. The findings are published on the National Museum of Nature and Science website. So far, 225 items have been registered. Here we introduce several that show the distinctive features of Japan’s industrial technology.

Japanese Technologies That Led the World

No. 00210. Yagi-Uda Antenna

The world’s first high-performance ultra-short wave antenna was developed by Yagi Hidetsugu and Uda Shintarō in the course of researching magnetrons at Tohoku University in the 1920s. At that time, very high frequency and ultrahigh frequency wave technology was being developed in radio wave research following the practical application of long, medium, and short frequency waves for communications. The capabilities of Yagi-Uda antennas first attracted attention outside of Japan, and Western countries used them for military purposes during World War II. They remain in wide use even today as television antennas both in Japan and elsewhere. (Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Nature and Science.)

No. 00150. Color Gastric Photography Lamp

The world’s first light bulb for color gastrocameras was manufactured in 1954. At that time color film had low sensitivity and required large quantities of light. However, the heat generated by high-intensity lamps adversely affected the gastric wall. This was avoided by combining two semi-cylindrical glass bulbs with different light intensities. Color temperature measures were also taken for accurate photo color production, and a system was adopted to avoid lamp burnout during use. Gastrocameras came into wider use after these lamps made it possible to ascertain the state of the gastric wall from color images. (Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Nature and Science.)

No. 00121. Casio SL800 Card Calculator

This credit-card-sized calculator, with a thickness of just 0.8 millimeters, remains the thinnest calculator in the world today. This thinness was achieved with the adhesion of a 0.5 mm LSI, 0.55 mm liquid crystal, 0.2 mm solar battery and other parts in a flexible film. It first went on sale in 1983 for ¥5,900. One of the ultimate shapes for compact, thin calculators, it has been included in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Nature and Science.)

Technologies That Changed Japanese Society

No. 00118. Fanuc Robot Model 1

This industrial robot came into widespread use thanks to its very low price. Manufactured in 1977, it had a cylindrical coordinate system, five degrees of freedom, and point-to-point control using a direct current servo motor and pneumatic controls. It led to greatly improved productivity in manufacturing in Japan, which has become a leading robotics country. (Photo courtesy of Fanuc Corporation.)

No. 00185. Entertainment Robot “AIBO” ERS-110

This autonomous entertainment robot, manufactured in 1999, was the first such robot in the world to be commercialized and sold for everyday home use. The AIBO appeared to express emotions and it could learn and be trained by communicating with humans. Although it is no longer in production, its relations with humans continue, including the holding of “funerals” for AIBOs that no longer function. (Photo courtesy of Sony Corporation.)

No. 00045. First Mass-Produced 0-Series Cars for the Tōkaidō Shinkansen

This is the first production model of cars for the Shinkansen, a name that has become synonymous with high-speed rail. These “bullet trains” started regular service on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, linking Tokyo and Osaka on October 1, 1964. Original technology developed to ensure safe and reliable high-speed operation included tracks with a wider gauge (1,435 mm) than the existing standard in Japan, a centrally controlled operating system, and a track maintenance and inspection system. (Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Nature and Science.)

Japanese Technology That Has Contributed to Society

No. 00072. Uenaka Keizō’s Laboratory Notebook on Adrenalin

The laboratory notebook of Uenaka Keizō, assistant to Takamine Jōkichi, records their work in isolating and purifying a hormone for the first time in the world in 1900. They called it “adrenalin,” but later, after Takamine’s death the name of this substance was disputed; it was called “epinephrine” in the American medical world, and the latter term also spread in Japanese medical circles. However, this notebook helped to demonstrate that Takamine and Uenaka were the first to crystallize the hormone, and the name “adrenalin” has come to be commonly used. (Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Nature and Science.)

No. 00209. Experiment Notes and Monthly Reports on the Discovery of Statins

“Statin” is the general name given to a class of drugs that inhibit HMG-CoA reductase and have a strong cholesterol-lowering action. They have been called the savior of patients with lifestyle-related diseases. The first statin, mevastatin (ML-236B), was discovered by Endō Akira. Capsules from the first treatment lot, produced in 1971, remain, along with the monthly reports and assistant’s laboratory notebooks recording the process of discovery. (Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Nature and Science.)

No. 00135. Mosquito Coils Containing Pyrethrum

Mosquito-repellent coils were invented in Japan in 1890, and coils containing pyrethrum appeared in 1919. Ueyama Eiichirō, founder of the company that originally produced these coils spread pyrethrum cultivation in Japan, turning the country into the world’s largest producer of the substance. Used around the world even today, the coils have contributed greatly to the prevention of malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. (Photo courtesy of Dainihon Jochugiku Co., Ltd.)

No. 00109. First Portable Stereo Cassette Player, Walkman TPS-L2

The Walkman, the world’s first headphone stereo cassette player, which came on the market in 1979, caused a dramatic change in how people around the world listened to music. The total number of Walkman portable cassette players shipped through 2009 came to 220 million. Although media and formats have changed with advances in digital technology, devices inheriting this concept are today produced around the world and continue to be highly popular. (Photo courtesy of Sony Corporation.)

What We Can Learn from These Materials?

“Innovation” does not refer simply to advances in technology. It can be defined as a process that spreads new products and concepts and brings about significant changes in lifestyles and in society. Not only new inventions but also new combinations of existing items play important roles in innovation.

A pattern can be seen in the advance of industrial technology. Significant progress is often made in times of active exchange between different cultures and societies. This was driven in ancient times by the exchange of knowledge and technology accompanying the movement of commodities or people, and in more recent eras by the introduction of knowledge by people directly or through writing or by the import of completed products and technologies. These things form the basis for development and production by mimicry, after which the addition of original discoveries progresses toward a peak where a new technology reigns. Then, as that technology becomes generalized, progress follows a slower course.

Japanese industrial technology has followed this pattern fairly closely, with a focus on individual technical fields. Japanese industrial technology has led to innovations across the world, but after growing rapidly may be currently seen as having reached a more settled state. As the engineers that supported those earlier advances age and the economic environment changes, many of the items that tell the history of technical development in Japan are rapidly being lost. Yet with this loss has come recognition of the great value and importance of the items that tell these stories.

The Anthropocene (era of humans) refers to an age extending beyond a geological epoch, one in which human activities leave lasting effects on a global scale. The International Commission on Stratigraphy is considering the “golden spike” that hit around 1950 as possibly marking the start of this new era. It may be no coincidence that this time corresponds to a stage of growth in the world and Japan. The Essential Historical Materials for Science and Technology projects follows the adage of “discovering new things by learning about the past,” and while contributing to solutions to future issues in Japan will also aid further advances in industrial technology and other aspects of science and technology. Let us hope that it will contribute both to international harmony and to the further the development of human society.

■ Essential Historical Materials for Science and Technology registered to date

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Shinkansen robot technology Sony Casio industry Fanuc