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Funny 19th century Japanese prints depicting famous western inventors, philosophers, and scientists

Japanese Ukiyo-e artists were famous for their depictions of the “floating world.” Prints made in this technique often depict scenes from the lives of ordinary people, or from the lives of famous or legendary characters. Many of the images were realistically (or even naturalistically) done, showing all the cruelty of the mortal world; but some of these pictures were made in a humorous manner, exposing the troubles of human life to laughter and ridicule, making it less painful. Such is the case with the following pictures which are part of a set of 14 prints, most likely made by the Japanese Department of Education. According to the University of Tsukuba Library, they were made in 1873, at a time when Japan was undergoing an intense period of westernization.

A look at the prints tells us that the industrial revolution of the 19th century is probably the primary motive for their creation. On them, we can see some of the greatest supporters and participants in the process of industrialization, people like James Watt and John Heathcoat. Although the images are made to celebrate these remarkable people and their inventions, with the goal of motivating Japanese students to follow their steps, they seem to do quite the opposite. Most of the characters are comically sketched, in a poor mood, with the sense that they won’t manage to make their breakthroughs.

For example, James Watt seems to argue with his Aunt over the kettle while experimenting with steam. On another print Thomas Carlyle is in a panic after his dog accidentally burned his manuscripts by knocking down a lamp. Luckily these prints are accompanied by a written message (in Japanese) and that message tells a different story. A motivational one. The texts written on the prints are similar to proverbs such as “If at first you don’t succeed then try again,” or “Perseverance prospers.”


Sir Richard Arkwright – The inventor of the spinning machine


In this print, Arkwright is angry and sends his wife to her parents because he assumed that she deliberately broke his spinning wheel.

Thomas Carlyle – A Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, historian, and teacher


Carlyle is simply horrified! His manuscripts are destroyed after his dog upsets a lamp.

Bernard Palissy – The inventor of enameled pottery


Here Palissy is shown in a frenzy, burning his furniture to keep the furnace going, as his wife breastfeeds a baby and his son runs in fear. He burned all the furniture but at the end, he succeeded.


James Watt – The inventor of the steam engine


James Watt is obviously playing with fire and steam here, experimenting. His aunt, on the other hand, is tired of his “nonsense” and starts an argument.


John Heathcoat – The inventor of the knitting machine


One day Heathcoat comes home full of excitement. After many attempts, he succeeded. In this image, he shows the first successful sample from his knitting machine to his wife.


John James Audubon – Bird naturalist and painter


Here we can see Audubon discovering that his life work and journey logs work were eaten by rats. Nevertheless, he traveled again and collected new material for his books.

Boban Docevski

Boban Docevski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News