Exactly 150 years ago, on February 14, 1867, Sakichi Toyoda (豊田 佐吉 Toyoda Sakichi) was born. He is known in Japan as the King of Inventors (which is probably a bit of an exaggeration), father of the Japanese Industrial Revolution, and also the founder of the Toyota industrial empire. Time to take a look back in history on his life.
Sakichi Toyoda was born February 14, 1867, in Yamaguchi (now Kosai, Shizuoka), to Ikichi and Yui Toyoda (豊田伊吉; 豊田ゑい). His father was a carpenter and part-time farmer, and he had two younger brothers and one sister.
While the family was not rich, they were not poor either, and could afford to send young Sakichi to elementary school, which he graduated from after four years. Afterward, he started training as an carpenter.
Another significant event happened eleven days before his birth, on February 3, 1867: Emperor Meiji (明治天皇 Meiji-tennō) ascended the throne at age 14, following the surprising death of his father (poisoning is suspected). Later in the same year, the last shogun of Japan, Yoshinobu Tokugawa (徳川 慶喜), resigned.
The new emperor was now no longer a puppet of the shogun, but truly in charge. This started the Meiji restoration, which radically transformed Japan from a Middle-Aged feudal society to a modern industrial state within only a few decades. Without this, Sakichi may have spent his life as a carpenter, and Toyota may not have happened at all.
Getting Into Looms
Sakichi was inspired by a book, Saigoku risshi hen (西國立志編), the Japanese translation of Self-Help by Samuel Smiles. Smiles wrote, among other things, about inventions, including the Jacquard loom, getting young Sakichi interested into looms and significantly influencing his future career.
Hence in 1885, at age eighteen, young Sakichi changed careers. Instead of carpentry, he wanted to work with looms. He applied for a position at a weaving company, and traveled all over central Japan to learn more about looms – much to the concern of his parents. Please note that Sakichi was not the only young bright mind looking into looms. There were many others, as it was almost a boom to develop new looms. However, Sakichi turned out to be the most successful.
Patents and Companies …
Finally, in 1890, he patented his first loom (only five years after Japan established a patent law). He produced only four to five looms in his newly established factory, Toyoda Shoten. Unfortunately, while the loom had a much better productivity, it was not a commercial success, as a French patent with a different solution had the same benefit at much less cost. Additionally, his invention coincided with a recession in the weaving industry.
Hence he moved back to his hometown, where in 1893 he married his first wife, Tami (豊田たみ), from another carpentry family. In 1894, his first son Kiichiro Toyoda (豊田 喜一郎) was born. However, this marriage did not last long, and he married his second wife, Asako (豊田浅子), in 1897. This marriage resulted in a daughter, Aiko (豊田愛子), in 1899.
Over the next decades, Sakichi founded at least eight companies or factories in Japan and China, not to mention multiple partnerships. It is really hard to keep track of them all. For a good source, see Mass & Robertson below.
One company he established was the Toyoda Loom Works (in 1906 or 1907). Until then all looms were custom made and parts were not interchangeable. While in search of a solution, he met the American Charles A. Francis, who was teaching mechanical engineering in Tokyo. Francis introduced Sakichi to the American System of Manufacturing and helped him to introduce interchangeable parts. Together with numerous inventions from Sakichi, the Toyoda Loom Works soon became the largest loom producer in Japan.
In 1910, Sakichi visited Europe and the USA. Touring many weaving factories, he found the looms to be quite inferior to his own products, both in quality and in productivity. He secured his inventions through US patents.
In 1924, Sakichi – or more likely his son Kiichiro – invented the most famous product: the Model G loom. This loom was not only fully automatic, including automatic shuttle change, but stopped whenever a problem happened. For the production of this new loom, Sakichi established the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works in 1926, a direct competitor to his other company, Toyoda Loom Works. The first thousand or so looms were for testing and Toyoda’s own factories, before sales began in 1927. Even though this loom was three times more expensive, it increased productivity by a factor of ten. The product was a stellar success.
The Platt Brothers
The UK loom company Platt Brothers became interested in the patents of the Model G. In 1929 they and Toyoda agreed to a sales price of GBP 100,000 for rights to worldwide sales of the “miracle loom,” excluding Japan, China, and the USA.
Toyoda sent blueprints, looms, and an engineer to the UK to help the Platt brothers in establishing their production. Soon after the engineer returned, the Platt brothers contacted Toyoda, complained about insufficient data, and demanded a reduction in payment. Toyoda in turn pointed out low-quality manufacturing as the primary cause. After some back and forth, they agreed to a price reduction.
Toyota lore has it that Sakichi Toyoda, while on his deathbed, begged his son Kiichiro to start a new automotive company, and gave him the money from the Platt brothers.
Unfortunately, not much of this is true. The money from the Platts was spent on bonuses for the employees, and the new company was financed through traditional means. Additionally, his son Kiichiro could not take over his father’s companies due to a legal quirk: Sakichi’s daughter married Risaburo Kodama, whose relatives gave Sakichi quite a bit of money. Hence, due to social obligation, Sakichi adopted Risaburo as his own son. Adopting your adult son-in-law may sound weird to you, but in Japan such adult adoptions are still common. Hence Kiichiro was now, legally speaking, no longer the eldest son. Therefore, the Toyoda loom business went to the now-eldest son, Risaburo.
Sakichi wanted Kiichiro to establish a company too. Kiichiro was significantly influenced by Henry Ford and the American automotive boom of the 1920s, and wanted to create a car company in Japan. Hence, they established an experimental car research division at Toyoda Automatic Loom, producing cars from 1933 onward. In 1937, this company was established as an independent company, the now famous Toyoda Motor (later renamed to Toyota Motor).
However, Sakichi had little influence in that, as he died in his home on October 30, 1930, aged sixty-three, from cerebral hemorrhage and pneumonia.
Sakichi Toyoda is known in Japan as the King of Inventors, and credited with eighty-five patents. However, most of the patents, especially the ones after 1921, were by his son Kiichiro or another group of researchers. He is credited with the famous lean method of 5 Why’s – where you repeat asking “Why?” five times to determine the root cause of the problem.
There are many inventors. There are many entrepreneurs. However, few inventors manage to bring their invention to a commercial success without third-party help. Sakichi Toyoda is such an exception, combining lifelong tinkering with looms with a strong entrepreneurial spirit.
Overall, I hope this brief history is inspiring to you. Now go out and organize your industry!
Roser, Christoph, 2016. “Faster, Better, Cheaper” in the History of Manufacturing: From the Stone Age to Lean Manufacturing and Beyond, 439 pages, 1st ed. Productivity Press.
Mass, W., Robertson, A., 1996. From Textiles to Automobiles: Mechanical and Organizational Innovation in the Toyoda Enterprises, 1895–1933. Business and Economic History 25.