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At that moment, as if prompted by fate, legendary Toshiba founder Tanaka Hisashige walks into his office and asks the unthinkable: He wants the young engineer to partake in the company Global Monozukuri Working Group; a concept that perhaps sums up the spirit and ethos of Toshiba like no other.
But as the young engineer grew excited about the potential opportunity of a lifetime, he wondered - what does Monozukuri actually mean?
Monozukuri is a uniquely-Japanese concept that roughly translates into the art of making things. But unlike the English word craftsmanship, it places the emphasis on the process itself of manufacturing, rather than the person who does it. But it’s not merely the physical mechanism of making things, but rather, the intangible momentum that is created from continually making things better. To put it simply, Monozukuri is the process of continual improvement through the act of creating. And there is no company that better encapsulates this value with pride, passion and perseverance than Toshiba.
One only needs to look at the history of firsts at Toshiba to understand how the company has played a pivotal role in transforming how humans use technology over the last 130 years. The foundation of innovation at Toshiba harkens back to its two founders, widely acknowledged as two of the brightest minds to ever come out of Japan: Ichisuke Fujioka, the eldest son of a samurai who invented the first incandescent lamp and is credited with bringing Japan into the electric era, and Tanaka Hisashige, the same inspiring figure who first mentioned the concept of Monozukuri to the young blossoming engineer (and is also esteemed as the creator of Japan’s first steam locomotive, myriad year clock and a company that would later become the first manufacturer of telegraph equipment in Japan)
Toshiba’s history of innovative inventions can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century, when Toshiba manufactured Japan’s first X-ray tubes in 1915, paving the way for further advancements in radiology, followed by Japan’s first radio transmission tubes in 1919. In 1921, the company’s predecessor, Hakunetsu-sha, built upon an American tungsten light bulb filled with nitrogen gas to create Japan’s first single-coil light bulb, followed by the world’s first frosted light bulbs in 1915. These two advancements significantly enhanced the efficiency of light bulbs and helped lead to their mass production, playing a significant role in bringing light to the average household affordably and reliably.
Throughout the industrial era, Toshiba played an instrumental role in a radical transformation in society, with the invention of Japan’s first electric washing machines and refrigerators in 1930, Japan’s first vacuum cleaners in 1931, as well as huge strides forward in lamps, radar technology and broadcast transmitters in the 1940s. In 1952, Toshiba completed Japan’s first TV broadcast transmitters and TV microwave relay system, followed by Japan’s first electric rice cookers in 1955. In 1959, Toshiba introduced an experimental prototype of the first helican scan video tape recorder, which had a much cheaper manufacturing cost than the existing four-head method invented in the USA. The helican scan video tape recorder ended up serving as the blueprint for the open-reel videotape recorder standardized in 1969 and subsequent cassette and VHS formats. The helican scan videotape recorder is credited with putting Japan’s economy into overdrive in the 1980s.
The 1960s saw Toshiba creating more inventions that would further revolutionize how society functioned. They brought forward continuous innovations in TVs, microwaves and radiology, and completed Japan’s first nuclear power turbine generators in 1963. 1964 introduced the world’s largest centralized remote-control monitoring systems, while Toshiba invented the first mail processing equipment that could recognize handwritten characters in 1967. This completely revamped how Japanese society shared information, while the world’s first set-free room air conditioner in 1968 brought a new sense of comfort to homes in Japan.
In 1972, Toshiba introduced one of its most cutting-edge inventions, the color-cathode ray tube, also known as the world’s first colour television. Toshiba used new parts, processes and research to innovate upon the existing blackmatrix screens, which costed more to manufacture, weren’t as bright and had lower colour performance. Hardly focused on the consumer market, Toshiba continued to provide increased efficiency for industry by inventing the world’s first microcomputer-based digital controller in 1975, which greatly increased productivity across a whole host of industries, as well as the world’s first microcomputer for automotive engines, which came from an unexpected request from Ford asking Toshiba to help them align with the US Clear Air Act.
1985 proved to be one of the most significant years for Toshiba, when they released the world’s first laptop PC. This portable computer caught IBM, who had invented the first personal computer in 1981, by surprise. Many of the components that made the laptop PC a technological milestone such as the semiconductor, 3.5-inch floppy disk drive and large liquid crystal display, were developed by Toshiba. First released in Europe, it wasn’t long before the laptop PC was widely embraced with sales of 10,000 units a year, and Toshiba soon moved this new product to the USA and Japan. With an impressive history in the computer business, the laptop TV was an impressive example of Toshiba’s adherence to the concept of Monozukuri, once again showing the company’s ability to transform technological processes on a worldwide scale. Today Toshiba continues to lead the portable PC market.
Further advancements throughout the 1990s, such as the world’s first NAND Flash memory and the world’s first DVD player and DVD-ROM drives in 1996, and the world’s first flat TV showed how Toshiba is perpetually committed to the concept of Monozukuri.
Toshiba continues to be a leader in innovation into the 2000s, having commercialized the world’s first HDD & DVD video recorder, the world’s first glasses-free 3D medical display as well as introducing LCD TVs and the world’s thinnest laptop. All of these achievements show how how Toshiba’s relentless dedication to improvement through innovation has made it one of the world’s most important and influential companies. As we move into the future, Toshiba will certainly be a company to keep an eye on - in the last 30 years, Toshiba has kept the USA’s patent office busy by obtaining more than 27,000 patents. And you can bet they won’t be slowing down anytime soon.