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Saga-Kurume Period - The Third Turning Point

The times beckon Hisashige to leave the consumer business for public service.

At age fifty-four, the tide of history brings Hisashige to the third major turning point in his life.

Joki-sen Hinagata; model of a paddle-wheel steamship
Reference:
Joki-sen Hinagata; model of a paddle-wheel steamship [collection of the Nabeshima Hoko Kai Foundation]

In the mid nineteenth century, Japan remained closed to the world, with Nagasaki the only port open to foreign trade. The task of garrisoning Nagasaki fell to the nearby feudal domain of Saga, which as a result became particularly attuned to advanced scientific developments abroad. In 1850, under the direction of its feudal lord, Naomasa Nabeshima, Saga succeeded in building Japan's first reverberating furnace and used it to cast iron.

Then in 1852, the domain established a physics and chemistry research institute, called Seirenkata, which investigated technologies such as the steam engine. Naomasa's trusted adviser Tsunetami Sano, an expert in Western science, invited Hisashige and two other talented individuals to the Saga domain to work on further technological advances.

Hisashige, who wished for nothing more than to immerse himself in the latest technology, decided to make the move to Saga, where, he believed, he would be able to pursue the work dearest to his heart. Now fifty-four, he set out from Kyoto to find a new stage for his talents.

Naomasa (Kanso) Nabeshima

Naomasa (Kanso) Nabeshima
[photo courtesy of the Nabeshima Hoko Kai Foundation]

Tsunetami Sano

Tsunetami Sano
[photo courtesy of Haruzane Yamaryo]

Reverberating furnace in Tafuse (present-day Isemachi, Saga City)

Reference:
Reverberating furnace in Tafuse (present-day Isemachi, Saga City)
[collection of the Nabeshima Hoko Kai Foundation; photo courtesy of the Foundation]

The arrival of Commodore Perry ushers in the age of modern science in Japan.

In 1853, a flotilla of four warships under the command of American East India Fleet Commodore Perry landed at Uraga to demand that Japan abandon its longstanding policy of national isolation and open its doors to foreign trade. The stark realization of the vast gap in scientific knowledge between Japan and the rest of the world generated a greater thirst than ever for new technology. Relocated to Saga, Hisashige was now working at Seirenkata, where, under the direction of Tsunetami Sano, he grappled with one new technological challenge after another: assembling models of steamships and a steam locomotive, experimenting with the telegraph, and manufacturing glass.

Until then, Hisahige's work had been in the consumer business, catering to private households with devices like clocks and the Mujin-to lamp. The switch to public service must have seemed enthralling indeed in terms of both the technological potential and the sheer scale involved. The finances of Saga domain were strapped, and Seirenkata came in for harsh criticism from some quarters; even so, it achieved steady success, including the building of three boilers on behalf of the Shogun's government.

Depiction of Saga domain's Seirenkata research institute showing the model steam carriage being given a test run

Reference:
Depiction of Saga domain's Seirenkata research institute showing the model steam carriage being given a test run
[collection of the Nabeshima Hoko Kai Foundation; photo courtesy of the Foundation]

From inventor to technologist in the service of a feudal lord: In Saga, Hisashige undertakes more ambitious projects than ever.

When verifying new knowledge from the West, the first step of the Seirenkata research team around Hisashige Tanaka was to construct a model. This approach to a correct understanding of the principles behind how things work — first formulate a hypothesis, then test it — differs not a bit from the method followed today, even though technology now is vastly more advanced.

One outcome of these efforts was the model of a steam carriage shown in the photo. This locomotive was modeled on one brought by a Russian warship that arrived in Nagasaki in 1853. Hisashige and his team also built models of two types of steamship with different propulsion systems, one a paddle wheel, the other a screw design.

The construction of these models was motivated by more than mere technical curiosity; they were designed for trial runs, and inspired by a clear vision of the future. Indeed, Hisashige and his colleagues succeeded in building an actual steamship, the Ryofumaru, in 1865.

Joki-sya Hinagata; model of a steam locomotive

Joki-sya Hinagata;
model of a steam locomotive
[collection of the Nabeshima Hoko Kai Foundation]

Joki-sen Hinagata; model of a screw-propelled steamship

Joki-sen Hinagata;
model of a screw-propelled steamship
[collection of the Nabeshima Hoko Kai Foundation; photo courtesy of the Foundation]

Picture of the Ryofumaru

Reference:
Picture of the Ryofumaru
[collection of the Nabeshima Hoko Kai Foundation; photo courtesy of the Foundation]

Hisashige displays his technical prowess in his birthplace of Kurume.

Enthuasiastic approval for modernization was spreading rapidly throughout Japan. The domain of Kurume, Hisashige Tanaka's birthplace, was no exception. To share the advantages of advanced technology, it would need to recruit highly skilled technical expertise. Fortunately, the Saga domain where Hisashige had achieved such stunning success was located right next door, and the Kurume domain approached the Saga authorities and Hisashige himself to enlist his services. So earnest were its overtures that Hisashige made up his mind to return to his old home. Despite his advanced age, his enthusiasm for science and technology had not waned in the least, and he assumed the post of director of the new factory just built by the Kurume domain.

Hisashige's inventions extend to traditional industries.

Upon taking up his new duties in the Kurume domain, Hisashige invented an impressive assortment of devices, including a machine for irrigating rice paddies and fields located at high elevations; Japan's first artificial ice maker; a device called the "keyless lock;" a sophisticated new machine for manufacturing Kurume-gasuri fabric; and the so-called Roshimeki. Needless to say, Hisashige kept abreast of the latest technology as well.

Ever since constructing a telegraph ; Eseruterekarafu, at Seirenkata, he had pursued a special interest in communications technology. However, the fast-running tide of the times did not allow him to linger long in provincial Japan. He was about to arrive at another major turning point in his life.

The keyless lock

The keyless lock
[collection of the Kurume City Board of Education; photo courtesy of the Board]

Needle telegraph "Eseruterekarafu"

Reference:
Needle telegraph "Eseruterekarafu" (Isahaya city tangible cultural property)
[property of the soda family]

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