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Obituary

Masaru Ibuka (1908-97)

Electrical engineer and co-founder of SONY

Electrical engineer and co-founder of SONY

On 16 December 1947 a group of scientists at Bell Laboratories in the United States, including the eventual Nobel laureates John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain, announced that they had developed the transistor. But the device was neither ready for production on industrial scales, nor could it operate at high enough frequencies for most applications. These and other technical problems had to be surmounted before the transistor could fulfil its immense potential. Equally importantly, visionary engineers and entrepreneurs had to recognize the significance of the invention before its time had really come, and attract, organize and inspire the right people to build popular and profitable products, initially using very limited resources.

In Japan, two such engineers and entrepreneurs were the co-founders of SONY, Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka. Ibuka died on 19 December 1997, almost 50 years to the day after that announcement from Bell Labs and the debut of the invention which he was to help develop so far.

Ibuka was born on 11 April 1908, in the beautiful town of Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture, about 100 km north of Tokyo. His was a technologically aware family — his father had studied electrochemistry at the school which has now become the famous Tokyo Institute of Technology, and as a young man he constructed one of Japan's first water-driven electrical power stations.

In 1910, following his father's tragic accidental death by electrocution, Ibuka moved with his mother to live with his paternal grandparents in Kobe. After his mother's remarriage, Ibuka stayed with his grandparents and was indulged in his fascination with technology and science. For example, it is said that he frequently took alarm clocks to pieces, and when he could not fit them together again his grandfather would buy him a new one to start again. Pursuing that interest into higher education, in 1933 Ibuka graduated in electrical engineering from Waseda University.

After graduation, Ibuka joined the Photochemical Laboratory, where he worked on sound and picture recording technologies. In 1936 he moved to the Japan Opto-acoustic Engineering Company, where he worked on vacuum tubes. In 1940 the vacuum tube department became independent and Ibuka joined the Japan Measurement Instrument Company, where he developed military technology, such as submarine detection instruments.

When the war ended, Ibuka decided to concentrate on consumer products. In 1945, in the devastated centre of Tokyo, he founded the Tokyo Tsushin Kenkyusho (the Tokyo Communications Laboratory). In 1946, Ibuka, Morita and Maeda converted this laboratory into the Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K. K. (the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation, which in 1958 became SONY). With sometimes stubborn insistence Ibuka would hire the best people he could find: directors of government laboratories and engineers of the Japanese public radio corporation NHK, and even those of other companies. He is reported to have phoned his chosen candidate, and if necessary the candidate's superiors and colleagues, until he got his man.

Ibuka had a clear vision of new products, and made up his mind over resource investment very quickly. Decisions to transfer potential products out of the laboratory and into production development were taken on the spot and implemented within one or two weeks, including the necessary personnel transfers. This combination of vision and decisiveness had an immediate and stunning effect on his engineers, whose enthusiasm for the company was such that they drove themselves hard in the quest for success.

A well-formed idea of the products to be developed and of the quality required, and top management involvement in the process, were key elements in the success of Ibuka and Morita's company. Thus Ibuka was the leader, or heavily involved in the development teams, for many remarkable innovations. Among them were the magnetic recording tape in 1949; a tape recorder in 1950, and later the video tape recorder; Japan's first transistor radio in 1955; a pocket-size transistor radio in 1957; the world's first transistor television in 1960; and the Trinitron colour television system in 1967.

Ibuka was a central figure in the reconstruction of Japan after the disastrous consequences of the Second World War. Part of the success of the Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K. may well have stemmed from General Douglas MacArthur's initiatives to re-establish Japan's broadcasting and telecommunications structure as quickly as possible. Certainly, Ibuka is said to have been a keen student of two young American engineers, Homer Sarasohn and Charles Protzman, who as part of the reconstruction programme taught modern quality management methods in Japan.

For Japan and the Japanese people, SONY is an unusual company and Ibuka was an unusual man. Ibuka was a Christian (a Protestant) in a country where the overwhelming majority of the population regularly attends both Buddhist and Shintoist religious ceremonies, shrines and temples. SONY has probably always been the least Japanese of all the principal Japanese companies in its corporate governance and the internationalization of its operations, and even in its scientific creativity — Leo Esaki was awarded one of Japan's rare Nobel prizes for his discovery of tunnelling phenomena in semiconductors, which he made while employed at Ibuka's Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K.

Like Bill Hewlett and David Packard in the United States, Morita and Ibuka built a remarkable corporation. New-style organizations such as these explore fresh ways for creative people to work together, and company cultures which provide the fertile soil for further innovation and progress. These companies survive the founders and continue to grow and adapt: even during the present Asian financial crisis, Ibuka's SONY seems to thrive and grow, unlike several of its competitors.

Ibuka's talents extended to writing, and he published several books, including one about his friend Souichiro Honda — the founder of the Honda Motor Company, and another remarkable Japanese entrepreneur to emerge after the Second World War. To my knowledge these books are only available in Japanese, so that Masaru Ibuka is not as well known outside Japan as he deserves. But SONY, the company that he co-created, surely is.

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Fasol, G. Masaru Ibuka (1908-97). Nature 391, 848 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/36007

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