December 2001

W K Burton, Engineer extraordinaire


W hich Scottish engineer planned water supply systems for most of the major cities in Meiji Japan? Which Scottish engineer was responsible for the design of Ryounkaku the first skyscraper in Japan? Which Scottish engineer was, with John Milne, the founder of the first photographic Society in Japan? The answer is William Kinninmond Burton (1856-1899) who, despite his hard work, has received none of the public recognition which fell to other British engineers who worked for the Japanese in the late nineteenth century.

Burton was an old style engineer, trained on the job. He had none of the prestige of the young graduates, products of the new University courses in engineering. When Henry Dyer (1848-1918) was appointed principal of the Imperial College of engineering in Tokyo in 19872 he was Henry Dyer, CE (Certificate of Engineering), MA, B.Sc., degrees awarded by the University of Glasgow. When William Kinninmond Burton was appointed to the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tokyo in 1887, he had no such commendations.

William Kinninmond Burton was born and educated in Edinburgh. In 1973 he was apprenticed for five years to Messrs Brown Brothers, Hydraulic and Mechanical Engineers, of Rosebank Ironworks, Edinburgh. He later moved to London. On the strength of his work experience in Edinburgh and in London, W.K. Burton was appointed by the Japanese government in 1887. At the faculty of Engineering of the University of Tokyo Burton was 'Professor of Sanitary Engineering and Lecturer on Rivers, Docks and Harbours'.

For the purposes of this brief note an attempt will be made to look at Burton's work as Sanitary Engineer, as pure water engineer, as designer of the Ryounkaku, as photographer and as a family man in Japan.

W. K. Burton, the Sanitary engineer
At the age of 31 Burton's appointment as a sanitary engineer reflected the Japanese government's recognition of the perils of disease which were an increasing threat to people in Japanese cities. But as Burton was to find in the 1880's, the position in Japan was very different from that in Britain. Arrangements in Japan ensured that the Benjo, 'place for business' or toilet, had an opening in the outer house wall. This enabled the Benjo collector to remove the sewage regularly. The sewage was carried weekly on the fields as fertiliser, a remarkably self-sufficient system with which Burton could not tamper, but which was later to cause many problems.

Burton, as pure water engineer
From the early days of his arrival in Japan, Burton was committed to providing plans and drawings for the water supply of many towns and cities in Japan. With the help of young Japanese water engineers, Burton prepared plans for a modern water supply for most of the Japanese cities.

The Ryounkaku, the first sky scraper
Burton was commissioned sometime in the late 1880's, not long after his arrival in Japan, to design an extraordinary tall 'Twelve Storeys' which opened to the public in 1890. It was some 220 feet high, octagonal in shape, made of brick and boasted the first elevator ever installed in a Japanese building. In 1890 this 'confection' was the tallest building in Tokyo.
Twelve Storeys was a Japanese inspired, commercial enterprise, designed to attract working men and their families to visit Asakusa, in Tokyo. On the top floor, for example, it was possible to search out other Tokyo landmarks by peering through the telescope provided for the purpose. Other attractions were to be found on the various floors of this commercial 'confection'. The 'Twelve Storeys', which had survived the earthquake of 1894, was seriously damaged in the Great Kanto earthquake of September 1923 and the remains were pulled down.

W. K. Burton as photographer
In 1887, the year in which Burton left Britain for Japan, the Seventh edition of W. K. Burton's Modern Photography was issued in London. This book sold well and was in print for many years. In 1892 W. K. Burton's Practical Guide to Photography, which also remained in print for many years, was published.

W. K. Burton became involved with photographing the immediate aftermath of earthquakes. He was a friend of John Milne in Japan. Together Milne and Burton produced The Great Earthquake of Japan (1891) and also a more general book, The Volcanoes of Japan.

As family man
William K. Burton arrived in Japan in May 1887. He seemed to settle into Japanese society with remarkable ease. He learnt to speak Japanese and by 1892 he had a daughter, Tamako, by his young wife Matsu Orakawa. On 19 May 1894 he married the mother of his child at a ceremony at the British Consulate in Tokyo. Consul Joseph H. Longford officiated; Burton's own signature was 'illegible'. Angus MacDonald signed on behalf of Burton's wife. There were many 'marriages' of British men to Japanese women in Japan at this time. Few went to the lengths of presenting themselves and their partners to the British consul for a formal wedding ceremony.

W. K. Burton died on 14 August 1899 in the University Hospital, Tokyo. He was 43 years of age. He is said to have died of a fever. Into a period of some twelve years, his residence in Japan, he had crammed a lifetime of work experience. One can only marvel at the dedication of this Edinburgh man to his adopted country.

Olive Checkland