Shohé Tanaka

Due to the presence of fools wise people stand out.
Japanese proverb

Shohé Tanaka in Germany in 1892
Shohé Tanaka in Germany in 1892

In the early 1890s the young Japanese scientist and inventor Shohé Tanaka (1862-1945), at this time, making his doctoral studies in the capital of the German Reich, Berlin, devised an adding machine. In 1895 he applied for and later obtained several patents for such machines: two German patents from 1895 and 1896 (pat. No. DE90288 for Additionsmaschine, 14.11.1895, and DE92217), a French patent from 1897 (FR262466 for Mécanisme darrêt pour machine à additionner), and a Great Britain patent from 1898 (see pat. No. GB189708723 for Improvements in and relating to Adding Machines). In fact, the primary object of Tanaka’s invention was a stop mechanism for adding machines, preventing the toothed wheels from surpassing.

Let’s examine the device of Shohé Tanaka, using his Great Britain patent (see the lower drawing of the patent GB189708723).

The object of Tanaka’s stop mechanism for adding machines is to prevent the toothed wheel, called the number wheel in these machines, being worked by the spring or tappet which makes it move, from surpassing, by its acquired speed the exact point it should reach to mark a number required. In such machines the rotation of the number wheel takes place generally at once by depressing a key, and therefore when the keys are played very rapidly or with great force, then the number wheel, on account of the force acquired, will move far beyond the expected amount. This inherent problem of keyboard calculators remained unsolved in most machines of the time, and thus was addressed by Tanaka’s invention.

The Great Britain patent of Shohé Tanaka (GB189708723) from 1898
The drawing of the Great Britain patent of Shohé Tanaka (GB189708723) from 1898

The apparatus of Tanaka is characterized by a moveable rod and a stoppage-click, which is allowed to assume a rotation movement of a certain amplitude on this moveable rod. This stoppage-click is functioning in such a manner that the pressure exercised upon a key of the adding apparatus, places the click into contact with the toothed-wheel or number wheel, causing it to turn until the moveable rod runs against a vertically moving peg fastened to the extremity of the lever of the key operated upon, so that any subsequent rotation which might be occasioned by the speed obtained by the toothed wheel during its movement is absolutely avoided. A spring having during this time sent up the key on which pressure was exercised. The stoppage-click being thus loosened from the teeth of the number wheel returns along with the moveable rod to its former position.

Biography of Shohé Tanaka

Shohé (Shōhei) Tanaka was born on 12 June 1862, in Yahata village, in the vicinity of Minamiawadji, now a town in Mihara District, Awaji Province, Japan. As a child, he demonstrated a good ear for music and was fond of ningyo joruri (Japanese puppet theatre in which recited narrative and dialog are accompanied by a shamisen). He also collected insects and arranged imaginary competitions between them, according to the sounds they issued.

In 1874 Tanaka enrolled the Foreign Languages School in Osaka, but soon he moved to the English Language School in Tokyo. In 1877 he enrolled the School of Foreign Studies in Tokyo and in 1878 the Natural Sciences Faculty of Tokyo Imperial University. His fellow students were some famous Japanese scientists like the physicist Tanakadate Aikitsu (1856-1952), and the mathematician Rikitaro Fujisawa (1861-1933).

At this time a visiting professor of physics at Tokyo Imperial University was Thomas Corwin Mendenhall (1841–1924), an American autodidact physicist and meteorologist. Mendenhall was convinced that understanding music is a prerequisite for the successful study of physics, and in the physics room in this connection, there was a small organ to which Tanaka had direct access. Moreover, Mendenhall postulated that Western European music was built in accordance with the laws of nature, which was followed by the “unnaturalness” of Japanese music, which contradicted Tanaka’s intuitions and stimulated the beginning of his research in this field. It was Mendenhall who introduced Tanaka to the notion of the just intonation: on Saturdays, he used to invite students to his home, played them on the violin, and laid out the foundations of the theory of music.

In 1882, Tanaka graduated from the University (Department of Physics), becoming the youngest at that time graduate in the history of the University. At the ceremony of awarding diplomas, Tanaka received from the hands of Emperor a silver medal for his academic achievements. Since December of the following year, he started working as an assistant lecturer, defending the appropriate qualification work.

Shohé Tanaka (in the middle of second row) in Germany in late 1880s
Shohé Tanaka (in the middle of the second row, Helmholtz is on the left side of him) in Germany in the late 1880s

In 1884, after receiving the Imperial Scholarship, Tanaka was sent together with other young Japanese scientists and intellectuals (including Mori Ogai, the prominent Japanese army surgeon, translator, and novelist, whose Doitsu nikki (German diary) kept records of Tanaka, Mori was sent to study military hygiene and sanitation from 1884-88) to Berlin, Germany, for research in the fields of musical acoustics and electromagnetism, which he defined for himself as a priority.

The scholarship was for a three-year stay in Germany, but in the end, Tanaka spent fifteen years there. At the University of Berlin Tanaka began to work under the guidance of the prominent German physicist Hermann Helmholtz.

Throughout his stay in Germany, Tanaka intensively studied European music. In Berlin, he studied piano and sang in a choir. In addition, he studied harmony, musical form, and counterpoint. In 1890, Tanaka published his primary work on musical acoustics “Studien im Gebiete der reinen Stimmung.” Tanaka also designed and patented (United States Patent 443305, 23 Dec 1890) a just intonation musical instrument Enharmonium (enharmonic+harmonium) with 20 keys and 26 pitches in an octave. It was a remarkably complicated mechanism featuring twenty-two divisions of the octave, knee levers, and a transposing mechanism. Tanaka traveled widely across Europe promoting its virtues with great success to the public, eventually attracting support from Emperors Meiji and Kaiser Wilhelm II (in April 1890), and musicians including Anton Bruckner, Hans von Bülow, Heinrich von Herzogenberg, Joseph Joachim, Moritz Moszkowski, Carl Reinecke, among others.

During the last years of his stay in Germany (for the last five years he had voluntarily stayed in Germany at his own expense, as it was inappropriate for the state to finance its activities that took a different direction from the one for which this financing was originally funded), Tanaka departed from musical acoustics and in the period from 1894 to 1899 he conducted intensive research in the field of engineering with a specialization in railway transport. In this period he obtained also several patents for calculating machines.

In 1899, Tanaka returned to Japan and joined the company Japan Railways. In 1907, he went to work at the Imperial Railroad Administration under the Ministry of Railway Transport, in 1909—as a representative of the inspection at the Office, and in 1911—as its head. In 1913, Tanaka left the leading post and switched to part-time employment, combining it with work in the Ministry of Culture and Education (since 1921 he was a member of the Committee on Japanese Music), as well as leading the music society “Pure Sound”, which he created in 1907.

In October 1908, Shohé Tanaka married Take Yamanaka, a relative of his friend and fellow student— Mori Ogai.

Shohé Tanaka is considered one of the founders of modern Japanese musicology. After his retirement in 1929, he resumed his studies of the just intonation and conducted active research and organizational musical activity until his death. He also led the Institute of Electrical Engineering, established by him in 1930, for which in 1937 he was awarded the Asahi Prize in the field of culture. In the last years of his life, Tanaka also worked at the “Institute for the Study of Folk Spiritual Culture”, created during the war years for ideological purposes, where he studied the preservation of traditional Japanese music.

During World War II Shohé Tanaka was evacuated to Shibayama, now a town in Sanbu District, Chiba Prefecture, Japan. He died there on 16 October 1945.