The roots of Nikon go back to 1917, when three of Japan’s leading optical manufacturers joined forces to become Nippon Kogaku Kogyo Kabushikigaisha (translated, it means the Japan Optical Industries Company). Soon after its founding, Nippon Kogaku invited eight Germans who specialized in camera-lens design to advise the company on its early lens prototypes—Nippon Kogaku had its sights set on industry giant Zeiss. It wasn't until 1932 that Sunayama Kakuya, head of the company's design department, finally succeeded in creating a high-quality lens for the Japanese firm.
A new shortened name, Nikkor, was adopted for the this new line of lenses, which were designed to be compatible with the successful Leica cameras from Germany. Sales were good, but in the lead up to World War II, Nippon Kogaku mostly produced items like binoculars, bomb sights, and periscopes for the Japanese military. By the end of the 1930s, the company’s production had expanded to 19 different factories employing more than 23,000 workers.
After the war, Nippon Kogaku needed to transition from military equipment to optical products for everyday life. A camera to go with the company's popular lenses was a cornerstone of that effort. Though development on what would become the Nikon I began as early as 1945, the camera wasn't released until 1948. Eventually, the company rebranded itself as The Nikon Corporation to match the name of its most successful product.
The Nikon I was a hybrid of sorts, employing features from leading camera designs of the day to create an entirely new professional-quality device. It utilized novel shutter placement and light-meter technologies, while Nikon’s history of military production ensured that the camera received rigorous product testing in extreme environments, from a meteorological lab to a fish-market freezer. The first Nikon I cameras were marked with the words “Made in Occupied Japan,” and today the rarity of these models makes them desirable among collectors.
Nikon I designers embraced the historical trend of using smaller film sizes as camera technologies improved. In fact, the first Nikon I used film that was slightly smaller than the standard at the time. Unfortunately, automatic slide-cutting machines commonly used in the United States would soon cause problems for Nikon’s new smaller film size, and require the company to rethink this change.
Despite its long development period and demanding rounds of testing, the Nikon I had numerous design issues. Accordingly, the company’s second camera, the improved Nikon M, was released in October of 1949. Toward the end of 1950, a sync contact for a flash mechanism was finally added for the release of the Nikon S, further boosting Nikon’s attractiveness to professionals.
That same year, "LIFE" magazine photographer David Douglas Duncan became enthralled with the company’s Nikkor lenses after a chance visit to the Nikon plant in Ohi. As the only Japan-based photographer for the renowned American magazine, Duncan quickly adopted Nikon products, and he continued to use them while covering the Korean War...
For Duncan, one of the chief appeals of his Nikon was that it functioned well in severe winter weather. The experiences of Duncan and other journalists shooting the Korean War influenced Nikon’s decision to give its subsequent camera designs a non-reflecting matte black exterior, thereby minimizing the camera's visibility to the enemy in dangerous combat situations. Before long, the "New York Times" was calling the camera a “sensation,” remarking that the Japanese camera “had proved superior to the German cameras” in the eyes of press photographers.
The pairing of Nikkor lenses with Leica or Contax cameras had become the norm for photographers abroad, so the release of a comparable Nikon camera for the export market was highly anticipated. Adjustments to the body design, shutter synchronization, viewfinder quality, and film size resulted in the Nikon S2 of 1954, the most successful model Nikon had released so far.
Nikon S2 negative images were slightly larger than the ones that had preceded them, bringing them closer to the established world standard of 35mm. Its lighter aluminum-alloy body made the Nikon S2 extremely portable and preferred by everyone from amateur family photographers to photojournalists working in harsh conditions.
In 1955, the company began making changes to the S2’s viewfinder technology in order to compete with the current industry leader, the Leica M3. Two years later, the first Nikon F Single Lens Reflex (SLR) series was ready for sale. The success of SLR cameras was due to the improvement of previewing an image directly through a camera’s lens. Earlier viewfinder designs required so-called "optical path diversion," meaning the printed photograph often varied from what was seen by the photographer when he snapped the shutter.
Prior to the Nikon F, Japanese-made cameras were generally seen as inferior to their German counterparts, though their shortcomings were offset by a significantly lower cost. Priced at $359.50 for its debut at the Philadelphia photo show in March of 1959, the new Nikon F was not inexpensive, but it was a professional-grade 35mm machine that soon dominated the market, leaving Leica in the dust.
In addition to a number of general upgrades, the Nikon F was designed to accept a portable electric motor. This meant still photographs could now be taken at four frames per second, an amazing advancement for photojournalists. Simultaneously, a wide range of lenses and accessories for the Nikon F were also released. In fact, Nikon has continued to make cameras compatible with the Nikon F's lens mount ever since, making the F-style mount (a bayonet system using three interlocking lugs on both camera and lens) the largest system of interchangeable lenses in history. Today, even new Nikon Digital SLR cameras are compatible with this early design.
Besides the Nikon F’s array of features and its adaptable design, it was also virtually indestructible. As the famous New York camera repairman Marty Forcher once put it, “It’s a hockey puck.”
Concurrent with the F-series, Nikon also pushed into specialized photography realms, from cameras designed for scientific research to the fields of motion pictures and digital imaging. One particularly interesting departure for Nikon was the release of the Fisheye Camera in 1957, which was an updated version of a rounded fisheye lens design developed by the company before World War II. Improvements to the format allowed photographers to capture the entire sky above the horizon line in a single image. Although the model was never adopted by the general population, these cameras had important meteorological and defense applications.
By 1971, Nikon had designed a modified version of the Nikon F called the Photomic FTN for use on the Apollo 15 mission. Improvements to the camera included changes in the adhesives used to hold its black metal body together, the design of the battery chamber, and the introduction of enlarged exterior parts for winding and advancing the film.
If Nikon has had one blind spot, it was in the area of consumer movie cameras, although it was not for a lack of trying. In 1960, Nikon released the Nikkorex 8, an early 8mm film camera. Designed to be a compact amateur home-movie device, the Nikkorex is distinctive for its tall rectangular book-like shape. Its motor was driven by 4 AA-size batteries, and later models came with zoom lenses.
During the late 1970s, a new Video Feasibility team was established at Nikon to research and develop a camera using emerging videotape technologies. In June of 1982, Nikon released the fruits of that effort, the Color Video Camera S-100. Even by early-80s standards, the S-100 was bulky. The complete outfit included a handheld film camera attached to a portable video deck, which was designed to be carried over a shoulder. Not surprisingly, the unwieldy product was not a great success, and Nikon soon abandoned the field of video products altogether.