The Moment

The Historical Arc of Genzo Shimadzu Sr. and Jr.


Japan’s first manned balloon flight, inspiring a can-do spirit

Shimadzu has produced many “Japanese firsts” or “world firsts”, original products such as gas chromatographs and remote-controlled X-ray fluoroscopy systems.

Perhaps this is reflected in our corporate can-do spirit, and our lack of a fear of failure.
Such an attitude is evident throughout Shimadzu.
One illustration of this spirit often cited at Shimadzu and elsewhere is the story of Japan’s first successful launch of a manned balloon.

In 1877 (Meiji 10), not long after Genzo Sr. started Shimadzu Corporation, he was asked to manufacture a large-scale hydrogen balloon.
The request came from Sennosuke Harada, a department head at the Kyoto Educational Affairs Office. He in turn was acting under orders from Mr. Makimura, the governor of Kyoto.
Mr. Harada was involved in physics and chemistry education in Kyoto Prefecture.
This was an age of cultural enlightenment, and he wished to heighten the interest of the general public in scientific education. He planned to do this by demonstrating the power of science, a key aspect of cultural enlightenment.

Governor Makimura
Governor Makimura

Why was Genzo assigned this task?
Harada’s attention had been drawn to one of the blacksmiths who was a frequent visitor to the Physics and Chemistry Research Institute.
This was of course Genzo, who was inspired by the equipment he was seeing for the first time, who listened intently to the foreign lecturers, and who was gaining expertise in a variety of fields.
Balloon manufacture had been attempted outside of Kyoto, but so far, all attempts had failed. The main problem was that there were no examples available to use as a reference.
Yet Harada decided to take a chance on Genzo, perhaps due to his sympathetic nature.

Although Genzo accepted the request, he had no idea how to proceed, and had not even seen such a thing before.
All that he had to go on was an illustration provided by Harada.
In order to generate the hydrogen gas used to fill the balloon, he decided to purchase eleven massive vats from the Fushimi sake brewery, and use them to pour dilute sulfuric acid over scrap iron.
The problem was then to create a balloon that would not leak hydrogen.
At that time there were still no rubber membranes available in Japan.

Manufacturing a Hydrogen Balloon

He tried grinding up konnyaku (a gelatinous food made from devil's-tongue starch) and applying it to paper or cotton, but the result turned out to be too heavy. After a period of trial and error, he arrived at the idea of applying rubber dissolved in shiso (Perilla) oil to a silk fabric base. Months of struggle had paid off, and he was able to complete the balloon.

Near the end of the year on December 6, about 48,000 spectators paid the equivalent of a few pennies admission to witness the event at Kyoto's Sento Imperial Palace. This was a big event, one which proclaimed the cultural enlightenment of Kyoto.
To the cheer of the crowds, a manned balloon was launched for the first time in Japan, and rose to a height of 36 meters.

Launching the Balloon at Kyoto's Sento Imperial Palace
Launching the Balloon at Kyoto's Sento Imperial Palace

Creating a balloon may at first seem unrelated to the business of physics and chemistry instruments.
Yet perhaps it was Genzo’s dedication to physics and chemistry, and his passion for taking on challenges and creating something new, that ultimately raised that balloon. The success of this launch helped to restore the confidence and pride of the people of Kyoto after the capital had been relocated to Tokyo. At the same time, it secured Genzo’s reputation as an engineer, and provided the driving force behind Shimadzu’s subsequent growth.