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Mujin-to - The Popular Long-burning Lamp

The popular long-burning lamp - a triumph of technology and marketing.

Hisashige Tanaka establishes a business in Osaka.

Mujin-to ; brilliant, long-burning oil lamp with air-pressure pump fuel filler

In the 1830s, the feudal domains into which Japan was divided began retrenching in the face of economic hardship. In the process, they cracked down on anything resembling entertainment or luxury. Mechanical doll shows, too, fell into official disfavor. So Hisashige left his native Kurume in 1834, wife and children in tow, and took up residence in Osaka, with the intention of manufacturing and selling practical devices. At thirty-five, he was at the height of his powers. He adopted the name "Giemon Tanaka" and, equipped with his rare penchant for inventing things, threw his hat into the competitive ring in what was then the thriving economic hub of Japan.

Mujin-to ; brilliant, long-burning oil lamp with air-pressure pump fuel filler [Left: lamp in the collection of the Toshiba Science Museum. Height approx. 80 cm. Center and right: lamps in the collection of the Saga Prefectural Museum. Height approx. 60 cm.]

His business caters to a growing consumer market.

Kaichu Shokudai;pocket candlestand
Kaichu Shokudai; pocket candlestand [Toshiba Science Museum; photo courtesy of the Museum]

As industry boomed in Japan's cities and people started working and playing late into the night, demand for lamps grew. People wanted something more convenient with which to light their rooms.Hisashige catered to their need with his portable Kaichu Shokudai; pocket candlestand, which could be collapsed into a compact body measuring 10cm a side and tucked neatly into the bosom of a kimono. This portability made it a favorite among physicians visiting patients, and it proved a big seller among others as well. Every detail revealed Hisashige's concern for quality, such as the way it was made of rust-resistant brass. He went on to release a whole series of lighting implements, like the Mujin-to; described on the next page, and the Nezumi-to; with a rat-shaped tank that automatically refilled the oil.

Business steadily grew. But then, in February 1837, famine and hoarding sent the price of rice soaring, and the starving populace started ransacking rice shops and granaries, plunging the streets of Osaka into utter chaos. Hisashige and family escaped straightaway to safety, but in the subsequent conflagration three years of steady, hard work literally went up in smoke.

The revolutionary Mujin-to lamp transforms Japan's commercial capital.

Traditional forms of lighting, candles and lanterns, were fraught with problems. They were not bright enough, to start with, and the flame would flicker whenever there was a draft. Hisashige, who would stay up all night engrossed in his inventions, must have been as aware as anyone of the shortcomings of traditional lighting sources. So he set out to improve things. The fuel used, rapeseed oil, was not easily absorbed by the wick because it was highly viscous. He therefore adapted the mechanism of the European airgun, of which he had once built an imitation, and came up with a design that included an air-pressure pump to force the fuel into the wick. According to the instructions that accompanied the lamp, first you flip open the lid of the fuel tank and fill it with oil up to the brim. Then you move the lid up and down to raise the pressure inside the tank. Once the pressure reaches a certain level, the rapeseed oil rises through a pipe in the column; a mouselike squeak tells you everything's set. The Mujin-to was roughly ten times brighter than a candle and came complete with a glass globe to prevent flickering. With its large fuel tank it gave three to four continuous hours of light.

Sales climb steadily as Hisashige expands his lineup.

Being so handy, the Mujin-to lamp became a big favorite with Osaka's ever-busy merchants, and soon it was selling like hot cakes. Eventually Hisashige produced seven different models of various sizes that he advertised with illustrated leaflets. There was a low-priced version with a round wick, medium- and large-sized versions with a flat wick, a beautifully ornamented decorative model, and a version designed to give craftsmen enough light with which to perform meticulous tasks by hand. Later, Hisashige even came out with an extra-large model.

This well-rounded lineup, so carefully tailored to different customer requirements, goes to show that Hisashige was also a marketing pioneer who left no demand unaddressed. The instructions, stating that any lamp found to be defective would be exchanged or repaired, testify to how strongly committed Hisashige was to quality and to putting the customer first. His Mujin-to transformed the nights into a productive time when people could continue to do business and engage in handiwork.

Mujin-to leaflet;excerpt showing product

Mujin-to leaflet; excerpt showing product
[collection of Kazuyoshi Suzuki; photo courtesy of the owner]

Choho Mujin-to Yoho-ki ; the lamp's instruction manual

Choho Mujin-to Yoho-ki; the lamp's instruction manual
[collection of Kazuyoshi Suzuki; photo courtesy of the owner]

Hisashige moves to Fushimi in Kyoto to make a new start.

Unryusui pump
Unryusui pump [photo courtesy of Toshiba Science Institute]

Having lost everything he owned in the turmoil that embroiled Osaka, Hisashige moved to the Fushimi district of Kyoto to make a new start. His own bitter experience triggered his interest in fire extinguishing equipment, and he developed a fire pump called the Unryusui ; "cloud dragon water," that used air pressure to shoot water to a height of up to nine meters and enabled the direction of the stream to be freely adjusted.

Unryusui pump for use by one person
Unryusui pump for use by one person [collection of the Kurume City Board of Education; photo courtesy of the Board]

This high-performance pump was designed to ensure a steady, consistent flow, and it was multifunctional as well. For example, it could spray water in a mist when desired. Hisashige later went on to manufacture several versions in an assortment of sizes, including one designed for use by one person. He also created the Umpaisen ; "cloud cup washer," a device that shot water three to six meters in the air, which could be used to wash drinking cups at banquets or to cool oneself in summer.

Hisashige studies astronomy and mathematics and deepens his technical knowledge.

Taiko-dokei ; drum clock (reproduction) On the hour, the drum sounds and the cock announces the time.
Taiko-dokei; drum clock (reproduction) On the hour, the drum sounds and the cock announces the time. [Toshiba Science Museum; photo courtesy of the Museum]

Hisashige spent a decade in Fushimi starting in 1837, and during that time he acquired the scientific knowledge he needed to become a truly cutting-edge technologist. With the goal of mastering what was then the pinnacle of the gadget maker's profession — the craft of building clocks — he also studied astronomy, the calendar, and Japanese traditional mathematics.

He studied with his friend Michimoto Toda, an expert in astronomy and mathematical principles, and with the Tsuchimikado clan, which was famous for its expertise in astronomy and the calendar. Harnessing the advanced new skills he had acquired, he then broke into the market for Japanese clocks. While clearly talented, Hisashige's greatest asset was his relentless effort.

Mujin-to leaflet; excerpt showing product [collection of Kazuyoshi Suzuki; photo courtesy of the owner]

Choho Mujin-to Yoho-ki ; the lamp's instruction manual [collection of Kazuyoshi Suzuki; photo courtesy of the owner]

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