How sharp observation and engineering resourcefulness created Japan’s first model steam train – Kisuke Nakamura

In July 1853, a Russian named Putyatin arrived in Nagasaki by ship to open Japan. There he demonstrated a model steam locomotive’s mechanism. Kisuke Nakamura and others, engineers in the smelter of the Saga domain, observed this model and then completed one themselves using reference documents and experimentation.

It is recorded that on August 24, 1853 (Kaei 6) some retainers from the Saga domain who were in charge of the guard over Nagasaki port visited the officers’ room in the Russian flagship Pallada and observed there the model steam locomotive which kept running on the endless circular rail. It was about 25cm long and used alcohol as fuel. This was perhaps the first Japanese observation of a model steam locomotive introduced by a foreign fleet (Kurofune). The Europeans showed off the locomotive to impress the Japanese, whom they considered uncivilized, to gain advantage in their diplomatic negotiations. Perry, the American who came Uraga to open Japan, also did the same.

In those days the Saga domain had organized the pre-eminent modern technical research institute in Japan, The Saga domain Smelter. Todayu Motojima, who became a leader of the project, and Kisuke Nakamura, who concentrated on Western learning in the smelter, observed the locomotive on August 24, the day it was first publicly displayed; immediately they offered production of a model steam car and ship to Masanao Nabeshima, lord of the Saga domain.
Lord Nabeshima gave his consent. The Russian fleet reportedly displayed the model only and then returned it to Russia. To develop a Japanese prototype without the benefit of a working model, the Saga domain Smelter ordered Kanji Ishiguro, a Dutch-studies scholar summoned from Tangotanabe, to translate relevant foreign materials, Kisuke Nakamura to design the structure. To build the model, they recruited Hisashige Tanaka from Kurume, nicknamed “Karakuri Giemon” or “Giemon the Machine,” for his expertise in construction.

On August 1, 1855 (Ansei 2), the completed running model was shown to Lord Nabeshima. Everybody gazed in admiration at the locomotive equipped with luggage running like a living thing. On that day a Saga retainer, Shigenobu Ohkuma was present at the announcement of the success of the project. It inspired him to become a committed proponent of the railroad construction after the Meiji Restoration.

This “model steam car” had a boiler of fuel alcohol on its body frame with smokestack and safety valve. The steam generated by the boiler was led to a cylinder between the wheels driving the piston movement. This was in turn converted into rotary movement through the rod and the crank and transmitted to the driving wheels. Today this seems very simple model but the Japanese engineers completely grasped what was to them a new technology and reproduced it with the highest accuracy. In 1856 (Ansei 3) the foreign-style lathe (the Maudslay-type treadle lathe) was imported to Japan for the first time. But it is thought the Saga domain Smelter evidently developed by itself a machine that matched the standard of the foreign one. This model is not only a landmark in railway history but also provides invaluable evidence to understand construction technology of that time. The engineering feat of Saga’s model steam car can still be seen today in the Saga Prefectural Museum.