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When Konosuke Matsushita (1894–1989) had to leave his family farm in rural Japan at the age of nine, there were no clues that the sad, little boy waving to his mother from a train would become one of the 20th century’s great industrialists, philanthropists and philosophers. Matsushita had to spend six years of hard apprenticeship, first at a hibachi shop and then at a bicycle business, before his unique qualities allowed him to see the world differently, and take advantage of what he saw.
After a number of years working at the bicycle shop, he noticed, at the age of 15, the first streetcars on the main streets of Osaka. His mind made an intuitive leap and concluded that electricity would play a huge part in the future of Japan and the world. To pursue this opportunity, Matsushita left the bicycle shop and went to work at the Osaka Electric Light Company. By the age of 22, he advanced to inspector, which was the top technical position.
His skills fully developed, Matsushita began to tinker with electrical sockets during his off time and designed what he thought was a better product than what his employer was manufacturing. The company wasn’t interested in his design, so he took the next critical step in his life, left his job and opened a small manufacturing facility during 1917, when he was 23. As is the typical entrepreneur’s story of the early years, they were a struggle for Matsushita, since started his business with no capital. Within six months, the two co-workers that had joined him from the Osaka Electric Light Company left, and his business consisted of himself, his wife and her brother. The standard entrepreneurial fairytale continued, however, for as Matsushita was ready to call it quits, he received his first significant order for electrical parts, thus saving the company.
Matsushita’s next insight occurred during 1923, when his experience in the bicycle business combined with his electrical skills led him to improve the battery-powered bicycle lamp. The current models were undependable and only provided approximately three hours of light. Within six months, Matsushita had developed a bullet-shaped bicycle lamp that would remain illuminated for as many as 40 hours on a single battery. He didn’t waste much time on the unbelieving wholesalers who wouldn’t purchase his lamp, instead he made another classic entrepreneurial move and went directly to the retail bicycle shops. He knew how the minds of the owners worked, and it wasn’t long before they were ordering the lamps, which drove the wholesalers to want them too.
With the introduction of a redesign of the bicycle lamp, Matsushita decided to brand it with the name “National,” which would become a well-known household brand throughout Japan.
This was an untapped market that Matsushita wanted to pursue vigorously. During the 1920s, only the affluent could afford electrical products; they were simply too expensive for the typical Japanese home. Matsushita’s vision was to make electrical products affordable for all. He started a new division of his company with the goal of designing an electric iron. The National “Super-Iron” hit the market within three months and the company sold hundreds of thousands of them because the price was a third less than competitors’ irons. Radio also captured Matsushita’s imagination and he quickly designed a three-tube model that was more reliable and less costly than any other radio on the market.
Matsushita, the philosopher and philanthropist, is probably best revealed in the speech he made to employees during 1932. He said, "The mission of a manufacturer is to overcome poverty by producing an abundant supply of goods. Even though water can be considered a product, no one objects if a passerby drinks from a roadside tap. That is because the supply of water is plentiful and its price is low. Our mission as a manufacturer is to create material abundance by providing goods as plentifully and inexpensively as tap water. This is how we can banish poverty, bring happiness to people's lives, and make this world a better place."
Read Part 2 of this PhotographyTalk.com article for more of the history of Panasonic.