Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 1.3 (2003) 326-327
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Notes from the Field
We need more such articles as Cross-Disciplinary Technology Transfer in Trans-World War II Japan: The Japanese High-Speed Bullet Train as a Case Study. This well-researched paper is just a sample of what is surely a rich legacy of technology transfer episodes experienced by the Japanese, only a few of which are known in any detail to Western historians. (During the last third of the 20th century, such transfer went both to and from Japan.)
As in the United States, Japanese design of railway vehicles in the late 1950s was, for the most part, tradition bound, and most engineers ad-dressed problems empirically. In the case the paper describes, the transfer to railway vehicle design of aeronautical engineering expertise and design approaches based on analytical modeling was remarkably successful. But something occurred during the Shinkansen case that did not happen in several cases in the United States when aircraft design approaches were applied to locomotives and rail cars.
The paper mentions one such case: the Turbo-Train, a gas turbine-powered, lightweight train designed for U.S. passenger service by United Aircraft. These train sets were plagued by troubles from the start, mostly related to shortcomings in mechanical systems and car structures that were not sufficiently rugged. Perhaps a more celebrated case was the initial design and performance of the transit cars built for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco-Oakland, California. With fanfare, it had been announced that the design of these new cars would utilize aeronautical engineering. But when the cars arrived, doors could not close at station stops because the car bodies twisted excessively when passengers boarded, and advanced controls could not stop a test train from crashing through the end of the track at Walnut Creek. (A photo of the BART car dangling halfway over the end of its elevated track appeared in most Bay Area newspapers.) Even after the first few years of operation, the basic architecture of BART's central computer-controlled system still kept the safe headways between trains to 20 minutes or more, thereby restricting rush hour capacity. Needless to say, these difficulties were eventually surmounted—but only by some judicious reapplication of traditional railway engineering and operations control principles. [End Page 326]
In the paper here, one aspect that jumped out for this reader was the fact that Shinkansen benefited from the talents of some of Japan's very finest engineers, from any field. The great influx to the railways of Japan's most talented aeronautical engineers was due, fundamentally, to the fact that these engineers had no other place to go, for the many reasons the paper's author discusses. But a salient fact is therefore inescapable: the Shinkansen was designed by the best of Japanese engineers.
Thus, in the complex array of factors that helped Shinkansen succeed so famously while other aircraft-to-railway transfers of expertise faltered, the role of individual talent must be credited. In a profound way, that fact is enormously refreshing.
Bill Withuhn has been the Curator of Transportation at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, since 1983. He is presently curator on a $25 million permanent exhibition on transportation history, which opened in November 2002. Bill has managed or worked on numerous exhibitions, including Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution; Field to Factory: The African American Migration; Science in American Life (fund-raising and the Hands-On Science Center); American Motorcycles 1900-1940; The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie; and others. He edited/co-wrote Rails Across America: A History of Railroads in North America (1993). He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.