What do a 19th-century placard cast from pig iron, the world’s first coin-operated sake vending machine, Sony’s discontinued-then-resurrected robot dog and the Yamaha D-1 electric organ have in common?
The answer, of course, is that they have all now assumed their spots on the roster of Japan’s Essential Historical Materials for Science and Technology — that country’s quirkily compiled, ever-expanding hall of fame for the contraptions that really count.
Without ever quite saying it, this list represents the concept of disruption before Silicon Valley co-opted the word. Only the best Japanese gadgets need apply. The coveted places are awarded, at the rate of about 20 per year, by experts at Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science.
There are several categories of qualification, any one of which can put an era- or industry-defining piece of tech in contention. To make it on the list, a Japanese gadget (or medicine or industrial advance) must have played a notable role in improving people’s way of life or creating new ways of living; it must represent a pivotal moment in scientific or technological development; it must represent an important moment in the relationship between society and tech; it must demonstrate a “uniquely Japanese scientific or technological development from an international perspective” — ie, to have beaten the Americans, Brits or Germans to some coveted beachhead of postwar progress.
The 285 positions that have been awarded since the hall of fame opened in 2008 are held by a fabulous range of inventions that date from the start of Japan’s great modernisation. This year’s entrants include not only a groundbreaking ethanol slurry distillation column that revolutionised Japanese agriculture in 1938 but also the Casio G-Shock watch (the Casio pocket calculator was inducted some years ago). It qualifies for a place in the history books for its “astounding shock resistance”.
Some inventions, such as the 1882 cement-grinding mill, transformed an era when “tech” was something measured in tonnes and involved iron axles the size of a tree. Others, such as the PCM processor that essentially made home video possible, were the invisible progenitors of the digital age.
There are plenty of obvious crowd-pleasers — such as the Motoman industrial robot. The Sony Walkman was the 109th item to be inducted on to the list, and quite obviously belongs as a “changing the way we live” contender: what other gadget, after all, can claim to be the inspiration for a song (“Wired for Sound”) by Cliff Richard?
The list is consistently surprising and endlessly worthy of perusal. It’s very easy to enjoy it for what it is. But you can also read it as a tightly defined history of the past 150 years of Japanese technology — and a further reminder of how Japan prizes hardware over software.
There are numerous world firsts, including the first inverter air conditioner for home use, the first VHF antenna, the first radio phone and the first mobile phone with built-in camera. Separated by decades, each has a serious claim to have changed the way we live or, at the very least, to have inspired someone to have asked “what on earth did we do before the . . . ?”
It is possible to quibble with some entrants. The TR-808 Rhythm composer from 1980 makes it in for “allowing freedom to program a rhythm pattern for an entire song and had a great effect on the music scene”. Other hall-of-famers, such as the extrusion-moulded joints for 500kV cables, require some fairly technical knowledge to understand how they changed the world.
Perhaps inadvertently, the list also raises an elusive question: Is it ever possible to precisely measure and compare the impact of two completely different technologies? In its current form, it isn’t quite equipped to do so: it appears to be compiled using scientific standards but remains, in reality, a subjective, impressionistic painting of progress. It leaves open, however, the clear prospect of becoming much less so over time as the bar to entry becomes higher and as those selecting the new entrants are forced to apply stricter standards. At some point, this list will provide a means to quantify the human impact of tech, just not yet.
Leo Lewis is the FT’s Tokyo correspondent