How Canon Inc. was founded and how it helped us frame wonderful memories for decades

Rahul Chowdhury
Aug 12, 2015 · 10 min read

Originating in the year 1933, Canon took its first step with a goal of bringing high-performance cameras to the masses. In these 81 years, a lot has changed but their goal hasn’t. From pocket cameras to professional grade DSLRs, Canon has a camera for everyone.


Takane No Hana

It was in the year 1932 when Leica introduced its new masterpiece to the world, the Leica Model II. Back then this was one of the best cameras in the world, but the only problem was that it was far beyond the reach of ordinary people (takane no hana), and so was the other cameras made by manufacturers like Contax.

However, one Japanese man named Goro Yoshida tried to change the whole scenario. He collected Leica camera models, disassembled them and studied the whole framework part by part. To his amazement, this man found out that the cameras were made of ordinary stuff and not with some precious elements like Gold or Diamonds to be charged so high.

I just disassembled the camera without any specific plan, but simply to take a look at each part. I found there were no special items like diamonds inside the camera. The parts were made from brass, aluminium, iron and rubber. I was surprised that when these inexpensive materials were put together into a camera, it demanded an exorbitant price. This made me angry. — Goro Yoshida

That One Dream

Yoshida had one dream — that one day everyone would be able to afford their own camera and capture some beautiful moments.

He started working on making affordable cameras with his brother-in-law Saburo Uchida and Takeo Maeda and established the Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory in November 1933. However due to some conflicts Yoshida had to leave the laboratory within a year.

Hansa Canon

Despite all their efforts, Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory was having a hard time in gathering good quality lens and range finders for their cameras.

At that time Nippon Kogaku (also known as Nikon Corporation) was the leading optical instruments maker in Japan. The time seemed perfect for Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory to join hands with Nippon Kogaku in order to use the famous Nikkor lenses for their cameras.

After an agreement from both sides, finally in February 1936 the first camera from Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory was launched in the market with the name “Hansa Canon”. The Hansa Canon Standard Model came with a Nikkor 50mm f/3.5 lens.

Only “Canon”

Shortly after the release of the Hansa Canon Standard Model, Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory became a joint-stock company and changed their name to Precision Optical Industry Co., Ltd. on August 10, 1937.

This marked the start of a range of Canon cameras with names “S or Newest Model”, “J or Popular Model” and “NS or New Standard Model”. Surprisingly, the name “Hansa Canon” was changed to just “Canon”.

The introduction of these new models skyrocketed the sales of Canon cameras, and for the first time the company was planning to introduce Canon cameras outside Japan, in the European markets which was at that time dominated by Leica and Contax cameras.

Nikkor to Serenar

After using Nikkor lenses for a long time, the company decided to create their own lenses. Yoshizo Furukawa, the first optical engineer in the company developed some lenses on a trial and error basis. Among the first few lenses developed was the “50mm f/3.5” and the “135mm f/4”.

Interestingly a contest was held to name these lenses, and the name “Serenar” emerged as the clear winner. “Serenar” represents “clear, calm and tranquil”.

Japan in Ruins

The World War II has left Japan in ruins. Many factories were destroyed during the war, but luckily Precision Optical Industry didn’t suffer much damage except the loss of a single factory.

However, due to all the chaos that were prevailing in the country, all the factories had to be shut down, leaving the company lifeless. This was a note from the then President of the company, Takeshi Mitarai to the employees,

Since I am at a loss about what to do, I will shut down the plants and disband the company immediately. But, remember to come back as soon as I call you back for restoration. — Takeshi Mitarai

Fortunately, the company resumed all its operation in just two months after the war has ended and introduce another new model “J II or Post-War Popular Model”. However it took some time for the company to recover from the effect of the war, and record indicates that the company was able to produce only 3 cameras that year.

Canon Camera Co. Ltd.

Shortly after resuming operation, the company had produced about 560J II” cameras in the following year. The company was once again back in track until it reached another obstruction.

At that time Canon was messed up in a jungle of brands — Canon for the camera bodies, Serenar for the lenses, and Precision Optical Industry as the manufacturer. People who were looking to buy a Canon camera and lenses were finding it difficult to remember all those names.

Finally in the year 1947, Mitarai decided to change the name of the company to Canon Camera Co. Ltd. followed by the change of Serenar lens to Canon lens in the year 1953. This move united the products with the company. There was only a single word for all, “Canon”.

Producing a Masterpiece

In the year 1951, two years before the transition of the name from Serenar to Canon, a Canon engineer named Hiroshi Ito produced a masterpiece lens by tackling a common problem called “Coma” which was prevalent for high-aperture lenses.

Solving this problem, Canon introduced its masterpiece, the Serenar 50mm f/1.8 lens, and from that time onwards the company has used Ito’s theories to produce excellent lenses for its range of cameras. This took Canon to new heights in the field of producing excellent imaging devices.

Step Aside Canon

Just when it was looking like that Canon is about to defeat Leica, Leica unveiled their prime weapon — the Leica M3 at the Photokina International Camera Trade Fair at Germany in 1954.

The Leica M3 was a totally different camera based on a whole new technology. The Canon engineers who saw the camera for the first time were amazed by the level of perfection the camera achieved in terms of brightness and accuracy of its rangefinder.

This was clearly a signal for Canon that the game is ever changing and they need to respond to this move as soon as possible.

A Demi in every Pocket

In the year 1958, discussions started within the company about whether or not Canon should make more affordable cameras. A majority of the engineers wanted to make cameras which they and people like them could afford easily.

This gave rise to “Canonet” — a camera which everyone can buy and click pictures with it. When Canonet was first launched in the market, the whole stock which was expected to last for a week, sold out in just 2 hours.

Canonet started a wave across the country at that time and everyone wanted a Canonet for themselves. However, Canon just couldn’t stop there. Just when everything seemed to cool down, Canon launched another camera into the market with name “Canon Demi”.

Canon Demi was a small and light-weight camera that could fit easily into one’s pocket and probably the best choice for a personal camera back then.

The Next Big Thing

After the huge success with the low-end cameras it was time for Canon to pay attention to the high-end pieces as well. This led to the birth of Canon’s first SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera, the “Canonflex”.

It was yet another milestone for the company which had been producing innovative products year after year. At the same time Canon also developed new lenses for use with the SLR cameras, called “R-Series” lenses.

With the model R2000 Canon set a benchmark for the camera world, reaching the highest shutter speed ever, 1/2000 second.

Canon turns 30

Making a long journey in the field of cameras, Canon turned 30 in the year 1967. President Mitarai delivered the following message to the entire team,

To create the foundations for our company’s prosperity this year, we must hold cameras in our right hand and business machines and special optical equipment in our left. At the same time, we must substantially boost our exports. — Takeshi Mitarai

In the year 1969, Canon was reborn with the new and final name “Canon Inc.”. This name remains intact till now.

For the Pros

Although the Canonflex SLR cameras were very much powerful, they weren’t able to satisfy the needs of the professional photographers. Voices were raised both inside and out the company to start the production of professional grade SLR cameras.

After 5 years of intense developments, Canon finally unveiled its first professional grade SLR camera — the Canon F-1.

Unlike any other cameras, Canon F-1 was released with a full set of accessories, numbering to about 180, including lenses and filters of various kinds.

With a plethora of features, the Canon F-1 became the official photographing device of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Canada, and 1980 Winter Olympics held at USA.

Hello EOS

Canon reached to new heights with its range of amazing cameras like the F-1 and more like that, but the company wasn’t satisfied with these achievements.

Canon decided that there should be a highly refined autofocus SLR camera which has the name of the company on it, and the target was to make this a reality by March 1, 1987, when Canon would turn 50.

As scheduled, Canon introduced a new series of SLR cameras named EOS (or Electro Optical System) starting with the EOS 650 in March, 1987. EOS cameras are light-weight and high performance cameras which we see even today.

A new camera definitely needed a new set of lens. With the EOS cameras, came the EF lenses, a whole new generation of SLR lenses.

EF lenses used an Ultrasonic Motor (USM) for fast focusing and were totally controlled by electronic devices which reduced the scope of any errors, and delivered superior image quality year after year.

Let’s Go Digital

When the world was going digital, Canon was no exception — it had to go digital as well. Loaded with a powerful 3.25 Megapixel CMOS sensor and RGB filter, Canon EOS D30 was Canon’s first step into digital photography.

Shooting photos was made easier where photographers could enhance their photographs to the way the wanted with the RAW image format which gave total control over the shots taken.

However, in the year 2002 Canon introduced another masterpiece for the professional photographer, the EOS 1DS — a professional grade digital SLR with superb picture quality and lot of high-tech features to satisfy everyone’s needs. This model was on the wish list of a majority of professional photographers.

Back to Basics

As said in the initial stages of this story, the main goal of Canon has always been to provide high quality cameras at the lowest price possible. When the 35mm DSLRs were priced at about 1,000,000 Yen, Canon released the EOS 5D with a 35mm sensor but at a much lower price point of about 300,000 Yen.

The same and classic Canon move, when every other camera gets out of reach of the ordinary people, Canon has a camera built for the masses.

Since its inception in 1937, Canon has been making revolutionary cameras and other imaging devices still today. No wonder the company will keep creating wonderful products for us in the near future.

Hit recommend, if you like this story. Leave your thoughts below as comments.

Rahul Chowdhury

Written by

Creating @airtyper. Software Developer. I read books and write about life at https://rahulchowdhury.co/blog

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