History of Camera Companies

The Formation of the Nikon Name

   The Nikon Corporation first started on July 25, 1917 when two major optical firms merged to create the Nippon Kogaku K.K. or the Japan Optical Corporation.  The Japan Optical Co. was an optical firm that produced microscopes, telescopes, transits, surveying equipment, and optical measuring devices for industry and science.  It started with 200 Japanese employees, and eight German employees,

   In the early thirties the Japan Optical Co. started to produce a series of photographic lenses.  These lenses ranged from 50 mm to 700 mm.  These lenses were made for plate back cameras and were called Nikkor, which was derived from their Nikko lenses that were made for microscopes.  By 1937 the Nikkor lenses were developed for 50 mm cameras that were put into Hansa Cannon cameras.  An interesting side note is that Cannon cameras carried Nikkor lenses until 1947.

   The Japanese military choose the Japan Optical Corporation to be the main supplier of optical equipment during World War II.  This increased the number of workers that the corporation had in employ.  From 200 employees the company swelled to 23,000 employees and 19 factories.  

   After the war ended the Japan Optical Co. felt that they should make their own camera.  In late 1945 and early 1946 they began to research a 35 mm camera, a twin lens reflective camera (TLR), and an interchangeable lens, coupled rangefinder camera.  On April 15, 1946 20 experimental cameras were put into production.  By September of 1946 a new name had been decided for this camera, Nikon.  This name would be recognized by photographers around the world in years to come.  The first Nikon camera was put into mass production in 1948.

The First of A Long Line

   The first Nikon camera was a combination of two cameras: the Leica and Contax cameras of that era.  The engineers from the Japan Optical Co. decided that neither of these cameras were perfect.  From the Contax cameras they took the basic body shape, lenses and a host of other features that defined the Contax cameras look.  From the Leica cameras they took rangefinder mechanisms, and its cloth, horizontal travel focal plane shutter.  This first camera was produced from 1948 to 1949 and was called Nikon 1.  It was ultimately deemed a failure because the United States government would not allow the export of these cameras because there was a compatibility issue with the United States Kodachrome Slide Mounts.  In August of 1949 the Nikon 1 was discontinued.

   Learning from their mistakes the Japan Optical Company decided to go ahead with the development of a new camera.  The new Nikon Camera, titled the Nikon M, featured many improvements over the Nikon 1.  The Nikon 1 had a tendency to cut the film in half.  To counter this problem the Nikon M featured a seven-perforation design that would not cut the film in half.  The Nikon M also had a 24X34 mm format, a first in camera history.  The Nikon M was put into production in October of 1949.

  Photographers around the world deemed the Nikon M a hit.  The Nikkor lenses inside the Nikon M had a very high temperature resistance and the body of the camera was very durable.  This was especially useful in the Korean War.  Photographers marveled at the smooth shutter movement and were dazzled that this camera would work in such harsh winter climates when other cameras couldn’t stand the cold.  The Nikon M did suffer from one flaw; it did not have a flash synchronization system.  The Nikon S was developed and produced with this important feature by the end of 1950.

Rethinking the Basics

   With the success of the Nikon S the Japan Optical Company wanted to improve and make a better product.  This was the auspicious start of the Nikon S2.  With the Nikon S2 the goals were to widen the film image size to 36 mm thus increasing the film size to the worldwide standard, make the camera lighter, improving the flash synchronization, and increase the ease of the camera overall.

   The most innovative development that the Nikon S2 had was due to the increase in size of the new film.  With the 36 mm the shutter curtain was sped up.  The problem was that with the increase in shutter speed the shutter would rebound.  This caused the film to be re-exposed.  The camera engineers developed a pendulum-type break for the shutter.  When the shutter is closed an opposing weight is drawn with the same mass as the shutter hits and stops the shutter.  This technology was still used in more recent cameras such as the Nikon F5, which was released in 1996.  This is also where the distinctive “click” sound comes from.

   In December 1954 production of the Nikon S2 began.  With these new improvements and combined with the Nikkor lenses the Nikon S2 became the highest selling camera in the S series with 60,000 cameras sold.  It became so popular that other cameras companies began to borrow elements from the Nikon S2 to incorporate into their own cameras.  The Nikon S2 became the flagship and base camera of the Japan Optical Company.  This camera ensured the continued success of the Japan Optical Companies cameras.

A New Guard

   After the success of the Nikon S2 the Japan Optical Company continued with the S series of cameras.  They followed with the Nikon SP, S3, S4, and S3M.  These models redeveloped the viewfinder on the Nikon S2.  They provided a field of vision that was interchangeable with different lenses, and an increased ease in shutter-dial handling.  The most popular of these cameras was the Nikon SP.

   While developing the Nikon SP the Japan Optical Company was also developing their new flagship camera, the Nikon F.  This was the first time in the Japan Optical Companies history that they had ever developed two cameras at once.  In 1957 after the Nikon SP research and development had concluded they swung their attention to fully develop the Nikon F series.  

   The Nikon F series was one of the last SLR cameras of that era to be produced.  It was however one of the most advanced technologically.  One of its features was that it provided 100% viewfinder frame coverage.  This was a huge breakthrough in SLR camera technology.  The Nikon F also sported an interchangeable viewfinder and focusing screen.  This allowed the Nikon F to be used for a variety of photographic situations. These technological advancements helped the Japan Optical Company pursue its goal of accurate, high-level performance.    The Nikon F was released to the general public in May of 1959 to favorable reviews.  Photographers around the world were wild about the cameras body as well as the interchangeable viewfinder and focusing screen.

   The Nikon F train didn’t stop rolling with the first model.  It became the flagship camera of the Nikon Corporation.  The Japan Optical Company followed suit with the Nikon F2 in 1971, the Nikon F3 in March of 1983, the Nikon F4 in December of 1988, the Nikon F5 in October of 1996, and the most recent release of the Nikon F6.  These later models showed such technological jumps such as a pinhole mirror for the Nikon F3, auto focus for the Nikon F4, and many other design improvements.

Digital? YES!

   Nikon was interested in digital photography since 1986.  That same year the Nikon SVC came out.  This was Nikons first digital camera.  In 1988 Nikon marketed the Nikon QV-1000C.  This camera took pictures at 380,000 pixels and it recorded analogically.  The shutter took pictures at 1/2000 per second; it had four different modes of exposure.  With this camera the Nikon D1, DCS-20, E2, DCS 620X, D2H, and D70 followed in the ensuing years.  Today the Nikon D2X takes pictures at 12.4 megapixels.

A Snapshot of the Future

   In America there is a familiar scene that is being played out somewhere right now.  A family gathers around a table and line up in a row, every member from the youngest grumpiest unsmiling child, to the oldest, grumpiest adult turn to face a Nikon camera and smiles as their picture is taken.

   Today the Nikon Corporation has over 22,000 employees (this figure does not count personnel dispatched to subsidiaries and associated companies) and has net sales worth 730, 943 million Japanese Yen.  Nikon has recently announced that they are moving forward with technology and will cease production of film cameras to move onto digital cameras.  The Nikon Corporation and their cameras due to their innovation and technological prowess will be providing pictures of embarrassing best man speeches, children’s first birthday parties, prom nights, and other memories that will make up our lives.

Works Cited

Nikon Historical Society.  (1981).  A Short History of the Nippon Kogaku Japan.


Nikon Corporate Website

http://www.nikon.co.jp/main/eng/portfolio/about/history/rhnc/index.h tm