Dan - just read the article. Fascinating. For some reason it brings a question to my mind - clearly Nikon were photography pioneers, but does Canon have a similar history? I know (believe) they're a much bigger company than Nikon, quite an industrial conglomerate though (again, I believe) mainly in the imaging business, but do they have their routes in pioneering development work or in commercial exploitation (what I call "me too")?
actually, Canon produced a 35mm camera long before Nippon Kogaku. The Hansa Canon was relased in the 1930s, not long after Leitz developed their Leica, the first successful camera to use 35mm movie film. Interestingly, the Canon used a Nikkor 50mm/f3.5 lens, according to the Canon Museum
Nippon Kogaku produced industrial optics, including many of the superior rangefinders and other military optics used during WWII. After the war, Nippon Kogaku Tokyo (NKT) produced lenses for small format photography, including Leica and Contax compatible lenses. These were discovered by journalists covering the reconstruction of Japan, and later the Korean War. Henri Cartier-Bresson
and Robert Cappa
were early believers in Nikkor optics.
Death of a Loyalist Soldier, by Robert Cappa
About this time, NKT developed their own camera body. Unsure if it would be a success, they were reluctant to market the camera under the Nippon Kogaku brand name. The camera was the Nikon I
The Nikon camera was released with lenses adapted from NKT's existing products: Lenses designed for Canon, Leica and Contax. The Nikon became a preferred photography platform for journalists using small format film in a time when large and medium format photography was dominant.
The portability of small format cameras was especially useful for sports photography and other mobile disciplines, but the image quality of the larger negatives made the Graflex and Roleiflex platforms hard to beat. Then, in the late 1950s the Nikon F became available. The F was the first truely successful single lens reflex. SLRs are very good at high magnifications, such as long telephotos and macro lenses. The lenses that NKT had developed in the 1930s and 1940s were adapted to the F mount, and new telephotos were designed. The F was a sports photographer's dream come true, and NKT sold boatloads of them.
About this time film was improving and the advantage of medium and large format photograpy started to diminish, just as the Nikon star was really rising.
Soon, the brand value of "Nikon" was higher than "Nippon Kogaku", and the company was renamed Nikon. I have a few of the early NKT lenses and they throw a beautiful image onto the film. For example, the NKT 50mm/f3.5 macro may be as sharp or sharper than their current macro lenses. It's certianly capable of publication quality images, even though it was designed in the 1940s.
These classic lenses are a joy to use. Nikon's optics and their mechanical construction were so good that the lenses feel like precision tools. The new autofocus lenses are nice, but they don't have anywhere near the build quality of the handmade lenses of the 50s and 60s.
Now, Nikon would just as soon lose the photography business. The margins are thin due to competition. They make as much selling a few of their steppers, used in semiconductor manufacturing, as they do making all their point & shoot wondercams. However, the old guard at Nikon keep the photography business alive, although it's no longer their bread & butter.
It's an interesting story, at least to those of us who are really
geeked up about photograpy. I'll sign off with a link to some of Henri Cartier-Bresson's work. Take a look the next time you're thinking that you have made a good shot or two. It's a humbling experience to examine the work of the masters. I could spend my whole life trying to learn to be as good as Cappa, et al, but those guys were simply gifted.
Magnum Photos-Album of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Click here
Article on the legendary Nikon 1