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History of Nikon

Nikon imageNippon Kogaku, K.K., or Japan Optical Co., was formed on July 25, 1917, by the merger of three small optical firms, one of which dated back to 1881. They began with some 200 employees and eight German technicians who were invited in July of 1919 and arrived in January of 1921. They were actually an optical firm and not a camera manufacturer, therefore, their beginnings parallel those of Leitz and Zeiss, who also began as optical manufacturers.

They began to produce a vast array of optical products such as microscopes, telescopes, transits, surveying equipment and optical measuring devices for industry and science. Because of the types of products they made they became well known in the scientific and industrial communities but not to the general consumer.

By the 'thirties they were producing a series of photographic lenses from 50mm to 700mm, mostly for plate back cameras, and the word 'Nikkor' was first used, having derived it from 'Nikko' which was used on their early microscopes. By July and August of 1937 they had completed the design of 50mm f4.5, 3.5 and 2.0 Nikkors which came as original equipment on the famous Hansa Canon of the same year. Nippon Kogaku actually produced all of Canon's lenses up to mid-1947; therefore all prewar and early postwar Canons came with Nikkor lenses. Of course the first were in Canon's own bayonet mount, but later ones were equipped with the Leica thread mount.

So we see that by the late 'thirties Nippon Kogaku was producing lenses for miniature cameras, but had yet to produce a camera of its own. With the advent of World War II they were chosen by the government to be the largest supplier of optical ordnance for the Japanese military machine and grew to nineteen factories and 23,000 employees. It should be noted that many of the items they made during the war, such as binoculars, aerial lenses, bomb sights and periscopes, are prized by military collectors.

With the end of World War II they were reorganized under the occupation for civilian production only and were reduced to just one factory and approximately 1400 employees. They immediately began to produce many of the fine optical products from before the war, for which they were justly famous in Japan. However, at this point, they were virtually unknown to the outside world.

Sometime in late 1945 or early 1946 it was decided that they should produce a camera of their own and research began on both a 6x6 TLR and a 35mm., interchangeable lens, coupled rangefinder camera. The TLR was dropped and design of the '35' continued. On April 15, 1946, a production order for twenty miniature cameras, to be used in experiments, was issued. Their camera went through many name changes during this gestation period, but in September of 1946 the design of the camera was completed and the name 'NIKON' was decided upon, which is the first time that this word is ever seen. A lens program was also going on at this time, but actual production of the camera did not begin until early 1948, which brings us to the first Nikon.

The Model One

Although it was not marketed until March of 1948, the original Nikon's design was completed in September of 1946. The basic design of the first Nikon was a combination of features from both the Leica and Contax cameras of the day, even though over the years many collectors have assumed that it was simply a copy of the Contax. The engineers at Nippon Kogaku decided that neither the Leica nor Contax was a perfect design.

From the Contax they took the basic body shape with angled corners and removable back, front mounted focusing wheel for normal and wide angle lenses, top mounted shutter controls, bayonet lens mount, back focus and the front decorator plate. These features gave the camera a definite 'Contax' look.

They decided to use both the Leica's rangefinder mechanism and its cloth, horizontal travel focal plane shutter.

Many names were considered for the new camera, some will sound familiar. In possible chronological order they considered: BENTAX, PENTAX, PANNET, NICCA, NIKKA, NIKORET, NIKO and NIKKORETTE. It is thought that NIKKORETTE was the last name to be considered before the final configuration was decided upon. Just before the final design was completed the name was changed to NIKON.

On April 15 1946, production order 6FT-1 was issued to construct twenty miniature cameras as an experiment. As stated the completion date was September 1946. In the West this date could be written as 9146, 09/46 or, as some would do, 09/6. In Japan they write their dates just the oppusite way, therefore it would be 4619, 46/09 or 6/09. It is this last method that is is inportant. Nippon Kogaku decided to use this date in their serial numbering scheme and chose '609' as a sort of prefix. The twenty cameras that were constructed for test purposes were numbered consecutively from 6091 to 60920. These twenty cameras were used in late 1947 for three experiments to determine the feasibility of marketing the camera. It is also thought that an additional camera, 60921, was also used in these tests, therefore, the first production camera bears the serial number 60922. It is not known at this time what those 20 or 21 cameras looked like, for they have not been accounted for, but it is safe to say that they looked very much like the model I shown above (update, see the prototype article for the earliest Nikons). Nippon Kogaku maintained the 609 prefix and continued to add numhers. It is hard to determine just how many Nikon Is were made but, depending on your source, the last unit was numbered either 609758 or 609759, for a total production of 758 or 759 cameras including the prototypes.

The Nikon I was produced from March of 1948 to August of 1949, or a little over one year. The Nikon 1 had no flash synch of any kind, "Made in Occupied Japan (MIOJ)" engraved on the baseplate and either a 50mm F3.5 or 2.0 Nikkor in a collapsible mount. This model did not prove to be very popular, for the Gl IQ of the Occupation forces, under General MacArthur, would not allow the camera to be exported to the US because the 24 x 32 format was not compatible with Kodachrome slide mounts. Therefore, very few Nikon Is made their way to the US even though they were sold to the Occupation troops. It was this restriction on export, because of the film size, that prompted Nippon Kogaku to introduce a second model which corrected this. In August of 1949, the Nikon I was discontinued and replaced by a second model known as the Nikon M.

Source: R Rotoloni

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