Bamboonery - Part 1

Posted on Sunday, June 12, 2011, under , , ,

Last Sunday I joined a hiking group of about 30 odd people in Yawata town in the southern outskirts of Kyoto. After a couple of hours walking along the Kizu river, the biggest challenge still lay ahead — the climbing of the Otokoyama mountain through a wonderfully thick bamboo forest. Some half an hour later we reached Iwashimizu Hachimangu shrine, one of the three great Hachimangu shrines of Japan, in the olden times the rear Demon’s Gate of the capital Heian-kyo (literally “tranquillity and peace capital”), nowadays known as Kyoto. What was equally interesting, and certainly more surprising, was to find the shrine’s wooden tablet amulets called ema, usually reserved for kanji inscriptions or pictures of horses, bearing images of what unmistakably looked like a Western face of an older, bearded man. From some distance it looked like KFC’s colonel Sanders (didn’t know the monks liked chicken burgers), but it was instead revealed to be the face of none other than Thomas Alva Edison. Soon enough we came across a black-stone monolith dedicated to the memory of Edison. Thus awoken my curiosity demanded an explanation — no notices in English though.

Edison in fact used the bamboo from Mt. Otokoyama as a filament for the production of the first ever commercial incandescent light bulb! And so, Shinto religion being polytheist, their gods were more than happy to turn the great man into a deity because, as the shrine’s unofficial homepage attests, ‘he gave light to every people in the world’. After all, ‘electricity occupies the twilight zone between the world of spirit and the world of matter’, God himself being ‘the Great Electrician’ [Elbert Hubbard, Jovian society welcome address].

Edison was experimenting with a variety of materials in order to achieve a desired length of 600 hours which in his opinion would be long enough to justify its mass manufacturing. One day he picked up a bamboo fan, took a strand from it, carbonized it, and found that it burned for 200 hours, much longer than the bristol board filament he had been using thus far. Edison then sent out researchers around the world to find the bamboo of the highest burning quality. One of the delegates ended up in Japan and was told that the best bamboo could be found in Kyoto. It transpired that the electric bulb with the Yawate bamboo filament lasted for nearly 2500 hours, which persuaded Edison, and in turn J.P. Morgan, to heavily invest in the new company Edison General Electric in order to manufacture the electric light bulbs with the sticky, durable filaments made from the Yawata bamboo. This production went on for 10 years, until it was replaced by cellulose filament bulbs in 1894.

But the tale does not end here. Edison hoped that Japanese bamboo could be bettered and sent a team of explorers to South America, who after coming upon some great bamboo, became confused by the river systems and forgot where they had found it. Edison then sent a man named James Ricalton out to the jungles of Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia and India. Here are a few extracts from Ricalton’s own reminiscences of his meetings with Edison ( Ricalton, a village schoolmaster, is summoned to appear before the great scientist apparently without being given any hints as to its purpose.

With a quizzical gleam in his eye, [Edison] said: `I want a man to ransack all the tropical jungles of the East to find a better fibre for my lamp; I expect it to be found in the palm or bamboo family. How would you like that job?' Suiting my reply to his love of brevity and dispatch, I said, `That would suit me.' `Can you go to-morrow?' was his next question.

No beating about the bush. It took Ricalton a few days to ‘learn his new trade’ of drawing and carbonizing fibres, after which he was promptly given further instructions by the wizard.

[…] Mr. Edison came to me one day and said: ‘If you will go up to the house’ (his palatial home not far away) ‘and look behind the sofa in the library you will find a joint of bamboo, a specimen of that found in South America; bring it down and make a study of it; if you find something equal to that I will be satisfied.’ At the home I was guided to the library by an Irish servant-woman, to whom I communicated my knowledge of the definite locality of the sample joint. She plunged her arm, bare and herculean, behind the aforementioned sofa, and holding aloft a section of wood, called out in a mood of discovery: ‘Is that it?’ Replying in the affirmative, she added, under an impulse of innocent divination that whatever her wizard master laid hands upon could result in nothing short of an invention, ‘Sure, sor, and what's he going to invint out o' that?’

After a 365-day long expedition Ricalton returned believing he had found the perfect bamboo in Ceylon. Alas, his efforts turned out to be in vain as Edison in the meantime had begun using artificial carbon as filament. It is rather refreshing, however, to find not a single trace of regret or disappointment in Ricalton’s reaction to the disheartening news. Indeed, he seems to feel thoroughly in debt to the scientist. 

[…] during my connection with that mission I was at all times not less astonished at Mr. Edison's quick perception of conditions and his instant decision and his bigness of conceptions, than I had always been with his prodigious industry and his inventive genius.
Thinking persons know that blatant men never accomplish much, and Edison's marvellous brevity of speech along with his miraculous achievements should do much to put bores and garrulity out of fashion.

                                                    taken last summer in Arashiyama

Bamboo Facts:

* One out of every six people on earth lives in bamboo constructed homes.
* The fastest growing woody plant on this planet. It grows one third faster than the fastest growing tree. Some species can grow up to 1 meter per day. Size ranges from miniatures to towering columns of 60 meters.
* “I am not sure about how fast bamboo grows, but when I was in South America, we could hear it growing. We would walk past a patch and hear the creaking. Definitely a weird sound. The locals told me you could sometimes see it grow..” (MacLloyd from Arcadia, CA).
* A critical element in the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Bamboo is the fastest growing canopy for the re-greening of degraded areas and generates more oxygen than equivalent stand of trees.
* Bamboo provided the first re-greening in Hiroshima after the atomic blast in 1945.
* There are over 1000 species of bamboo on the earth.
* The technical name for a bamboo stem is a 'culm'.
* Most bamboos flower and produce seeds only after between 12 and 120 years growth...and then only once in a lifetime.
* An essential structural material in earthquake architecture. In Limon, Costa Rica, only the bamboo houses from the National Bamboo Project stood after their violent earthquake in 1992.
* The best gramophone needles were made of bamboo until the 1950s.
* A bridge over the Min River in China is 250 m long, 3 m wide, and built entirely of bamboo - no nails.
* A traditional kendo stick (‘shinai’) is made from dried bamboo.


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