Thursday, November 22, 2012

Konosuke Matsushita and the "Bullet Lamp"

A Japanese motorcycle policeman with a "bullet lamp" circa 1925. (Wikimedia Commons)
Konosuke Matsushita was a man of many talents who truly changed the world around him with his ideas. He was a man who started a little company out of nothing that became a major international corporation. He made a number of inventions that were highly innovative during the early 20th century, such as two-way socket light bulbs, light sockets that could charge any electrical appliance, and electrical plugs and sockets that were more efficient than any others available at the time.

However, Matsushita's one invention that propelled Matsushita Industrial Electric, Co. (now better known to the world as Panasonic) into the national - and eventually the international spotlight (no pun intended) - was the battery-powered bicycle lamp, or the "bullet lamp" as it was nicknamed.

In 1923, bicycle lamps were a necessity in Japan. Many people used bikes as their primary mode of transportation everyday and needed a guiding light when riding at night or during bad weather. Bicycle lamps were very much a necessity. However, the bicycle lamps of the time were very inefficient. Battery-operated bicycle lamps were available during this time, but could only provide about several hour's worth of light before the batteries ran down. Candle or oil lamps would flop around a lot and were not very useful at all during a wind or rain storm!

Matsushita, who was himself an avid bike rider, also saw a need for a better light and invented a far more superior bicycle lamp for the market. Matsushita's lamp was a battery-powered lamp that was oval, or bullet-shaped, and was powered by dry-cell batteries and lighbulbs. The light casings were proudly manufactured by his company. Most importantly of all, the bullet lamp could provide light for 40 hours compared to a paltry 3 hours for other bicycle lamps!

At first, the bullet lamp was a hard sell. Retailers weren't convinced that the technology behind a battery-powered bicycle lamp would appeal to the average Japanese consumer. After being rejected by the mainstream market, Matsushita took his invention to a place he knew well and a place which would happily try to sell it: the local bicycle shops. He provided display models to the bicycle shops to use to demonstrate the lamp and, of course, the lamps themselves to sell to the public. Over time, the public saw how these lamps worked and they gradually became hot-sellers across Japan.

Statue of Konosuke Matsushita in Japan.
Matsushita capitalized on the success of the bullet lamp. This little lamp not only turned the fortunes of his company around (which had been faltering prior to this point in time), but expanded it! As the bullet lamp's popularity grew, he rebranded his company National, lowered the price of the lamps, started an advertising campaign in the national newspapers, and watched the success of the bullet lamp grow beyond his wildest dreams.

Over the course of the 20th century, National would manufacture new and improved bicycle/home lamps known as National Lamps as well as other light products such as flashlights. They continue to manufacture these products today.

The bullet lamp found another important use among the Japanese public besides its primary purpose. Many Japanese found the bullet lamp useful inside the home! Since these were battery-powered and had a long life,  many people replaced the traditional kerosene lamps with bullet lamps. This, in turn, led to the creation of the National Lamp, which could be used on a bicycle or in a home. Also, bullet lamps were no doubt a safer alternative to kerosene and oil lamps, which can be a fire hazard.

Another group of people who found good use for the bullet lamp were police officers, such as the one in the above picture. At the time the bullet lamp was invented, Japanese police officers patrolling on bicycle were - and are still today - common sights on city streets. The motorcycle police force, or Aka-bai Taiin (赤バイ隊員, or 'red bike personnel'. They were renamed shirobai, or 'white bike force' during the 1930s.) was becoming a mainstay of the Japanese police force. The bullet lamp was no doubt useful for these police officers navigating the streets of Japan's cities at night or through stormy weather. Also, as the country experienced a number of natural disasters during the 1920s and 30s such as the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 (which devastated cities such as Tokyo and Yokohama) and Typhoon Muroto of 1934, these lamps were no doubt essential to police and rescue personnel as they rescued victims trapped by the disasters or navigated their way through debris.

Matsushita's bullet lamp was a highly innovative invention that turned Panasonic into the multi-national corporation we all know today. However, it was also an invention that made life a lot easier for a lot of people and most likely saved lives as well.  

Links: (Konosuke Matsushita at Wikipedia.) (Panasonic's webpage about the bullet lamp.) (Quotes from Konosuke Matsushita about his bullet lamp.)

Image Copyright:
*Statue of Konosuke Matsushita: Rsa via Japanese Wikimedia.

*This blog entry references information from the following:
-布卢姆斯伯里出版公司, Business: 英文. Beijing: Citic Publishing House, 200?, pg. 1114.
-Kamioka, Kazuyoshi, Japanese Business Pioneers. Tokyo: Heian Press, 1988, pg. 65
-Alexander, Jeffrey W. Japan's Motorcycle Wars. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009, pg. 46

*This blog post is not endorsed by, affiliated with, nor advertising products manufactured by the Panasonic Corporation.


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