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Rizal Tech? An exiled innovator and the modernization of Dapitan

While regarded as one of the foremost figures in Filipino history, Jose Rizal’s contributions to science and technology may seem to be among the lesser known aspects of his career.

“Little, if at all has been said about his inventive knack of ingenuity that had been all along visible in the short span of his life,” according to Bormeo Modanza of the Filipino Inventors Society in his paper “The Inventor in Dr. Jose P. Rizal,” as featured by the Philippine Star.

Former Department of Science and Technology Secretary Fortunato de la Peña, meanwhile, highlights how such innovation has been geared towards public service, “His inventions were borne out of his bare hands and imagination and the passion to serve the people.”

Then again, what kind of modern technologies did Rizal introduce, especially during his exile in Dapitan from 1892 to 1896? This concise article attempts to cover a few of his innovative projects.

Rizal Innovator

Clean water, anyone?

With the help of his students, Rizal saw the construction of a gravity water system which delivered through bamboo, clay, and brick pipes. The one located within Rizal’s property in Dapitan (that is, Talisay), however, appears to be a smaller water system which they connected with the main at Linao (Linaw). Until around the 1950s, it served the community with drinking water, but parts of the water system may still be witnessed to this day.

Perhaps coincidentally, about the time Rizal was exiled to Dapitan, a proposal to build a water system in Dapitan was already approved by the Spanish government, as Father Antonio Obach writes:

The deed was immediately drawn up and approved by the authorities afterwards. [The] approval came on July 21, and we celebrated the news very joyfully to everyone’s satisfaction. The night, the music went with the leading figures around the streets. They were carrying three huge lanterns with these inscriptions: (1) “WATER SYSTEM INITIATED BY FR. JOAQUIN SANCHO, S.J.,” (2) “WATER SYSTEM APPROVED BY HIS EXCELLENCY, THE GOVERNOR-GENERAL OF THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS, DON EULOGIO DESPUJOL,” (3) “WATER SYSTEM STARTED BY DON RICARDO CARNICERO, POLITICO-MILITARY COMMANDANT OF THIS DISTRICT [OF DAPITAN].” [That] day, there were diana, pealing of the church bells, solemn Mass, and contests to climb a greased pole. In the afternoon, races for children; for the men, sack races, horse races, carabao races, the last the most entertaining for the people.

Rizal arrived in Dapitan on July 17, 1892, a few days before the approval was made. And so, when he learned of this proposal, he was quite enthusiastic to offer his assistance to Brother Juan Costa, who directed the project. Apparently, surplus materials from the government project later went to Rizal’s hands for his smaller system. Perhaps an artistic addition Rizal introduced would have been the public fountain which featured a sculpted lion head faucet. Known as the Fuente de Nuestra Señora del Carmen, it became the outlet of the Linao water system.

Obach commended Rizal’s skill and contribution as follows: “Bro. Costa is bringing the scheme made by Don Jose Rizal for the water system. Drawn by such an engineer, it does not lack precision.”

In his own words, meanwhile, Rizal described their private project as such, “Now we are going to make a reservoir on my lands. I have fourteen (14) boys whom I am teaching languages, mathematics, and how to work: since we have nothing to work on, I have decided to build a dike of stone, brick, and cement so they may learn.”

Rizal Waterworks Sketch

Brick making

Speaking of bricks, Rizal thought it wise to automate how they were made. He thus wrote to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt in 1895: “I have made a wooden machine for making bricks and I believe that with it I can make at least 6,000 a day; well now, I lack an oven. When I was in Belgium, I saw bricks being made outdoors, without ovens; and at Baden I saw also a pile of bricks in a field. I suppose that in Bohemia they also bake brick outdoors sometimes. If that is so, please tell me how they arrange the bricks so that the heat may not escape too much.”

Modanza would even assert that Rizal was “the first to invent the first brick making machine 30” in the Philippines. This would have been significant for even until the latter half of the 19th century, bricks would still be made by hand. Rizal’s brick making facility, however, did not seem to survive the test of time.

Rural Brick Making Kiln

Lighting up the streets

Using coconut oil as fuel, Rizal initiated the installation of street lamps in Dapitan, making the rural town light up at night, perhaps for the first time in their modern history. Electric lighting had already been introduced in Manila by around 1892, but oil-based lamps were still staple in lighting the capital’s streets until the 19th century was over.

Dapitan Lamp Post

Another kind of light

We would have to go back a few years before Dapitan to examine another technological work. Rizal may have not been a smoker, but in 1887, when he sent his friend Blumentritt cigarettes, he also sent a cigarette lighter made out of wood. Then again, it was not the type smokers today would probably be used to. Sending also a sample of the mechanism to German ethnologist Adolf Bastian in 1888, this homemade variation of the fire piston was called “sulpakan.” A simple description of its function would be to cause ignition through compressed air, a process which may also be seen with diesel engines. If there is another advantage for this device, it may be operated whether in wet or dry conditions. This makes fire pistons, while no longer in common use nowadays, a good survival tool.

Rizal Cigar Lighter


In his essay “Rizal, the Successful but Unhappy Pilgrim,” Serafin Colmenares of the Knights of Rizal – Aloha Chapter noted the following from Rizal’s Dapitan experience:

Although it cannot be considered technically as a “travel,” Rizal’s deportation to Dapitan gave him the opportunity to see other places in the Philippines’ South. While in Dapitan, he kept himself busy – practicing medicine, building a school for boys, building a water system for the community, creating a relief map of Mindanao, engaging in beautification activities, doing scientific research on the flora and fauna of the place and contributing to scientific societies in Europe, engaging in business and agriculture, etc.

If there was anything to learn during times of idleness, it would be the endless stream of productivity options still available even when doors of opportunity seem to remain shut. For who knows when we would fall from the grace of popularity or busyness? We may even think we are nothing without our titles, our occupations, or our passions. We may believe our circle would have been too small or too irrelevant to make a significant difference. If one were to trade places with Rizal, an exiled nationalist whose actions were monitored by the Spanish government, occasional windfalls like his victory at the lottery (half of which he supposedly invested in purchasing property in Dapitan) might appear to be quite trivial. Nonetheless, he optimized what he had to introduce such technological innovations for the betterment of his community. And was that not what progress is for? To achieve more with less?

It would then boil down not to the matter of which came first, but how their contributions to technology improved lives. Apparently, Rizal was not the first to work on any of these to be technically merited as his “inventions.” However, what Rizal might have done was to tailor-fit these best practices and prudently adapt with what was around him. He had no furnace to make his bricks? He explored other ways to make them without one. There was no gasoline or kerosene to light up the street lamps? Coconut oil was used to fuel them. In retrospect, perhaps we can do it, too. Remember that Rizal was not alone in doing all these projects. Maybe what it takes is a better idea.

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Avatar for Arius Lauren Raposas

A public servant with a heart for actively supporting technology and futures thinking, responding accordingly to humanity's needs and goals, increasing participation of people in issues concerning them, upholding rights and freedoms, and striving further to achieve more despite our limited capacities. In everything, to God be all the glory.

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