We have Kodak and Leitz (maker of the Leica) partially to thank for the shrinking of 35mm SLR (single lens reflex) cameras in the 1970s. If it weren't for the obstinacy of the former and the inspiration of the seminal IIIf & M3 models produced by the latter, we may never have seen one of the most influential SLRs in history, whose consequence is still affecting the camera industry. Let's take a trip back to the late 1960s and the birth of the Revolution...you know it's gonna be...all right...all right...all right...
Maitani-san. Utter that name in the presence of an Olympus-phile and be prepared for rapturous overtures comparable to those accorded John, Paul, Ringo, and George by hordes of 13 year old females circa 1964. Yoshihisa Maitani played a central role in the rise of Olympus to join Pentax, Minolta, Nikon, and Canon as the 5 major manufacturers of SLRs at the peak of their popularity in the 1970s and early '80s. Not only that, but it would be his innovations as a designer that would cause the Big 4 (as these other companies were collectively known at the time) to change their own philosophies to meet the challenge that Olympus presented. Maitani joined Olympus in 1956 and by 1959 had designed his first camera, the groundbreaking Pen. The Pen was, above all, intended to offer the average Japanese worker a simple, compact, and affordable camera. It was referred to as a half-frame camera because it used a vertical 18x24mm format, or half of the 35mm format of 36x24mm. This enabled users to get twice as many exposures from a standard roll of 35mm film and still give good image quality up to 8x10 inch prints. In post-war Japan, with its rebuilding economy, the Pen was a sensation (Olympus eventually sold 17 million of them) and other manufacturers rushed to bring out their own half-frame models.
Maitani and Olympus furthered their dominance of the half-frame market in 1963 with the launch of the Pen F, a half-frame SLR with interchangeable lenses and a sophisticated rotary focal-plane shutter made from titanium. Olympus now wanted to broaden the market for its half-frame cameras to other markets outside of Japan and, of course, the biggest market was the United States. Here is where Kodak enters the picture and sets off the chain of events that would lead Olympus into 35mm.
The film manufacturers wielded enormous power over the photographic industry as a whole until the advent of digital. The camera producers could design a camera for any film format, but if the film companies decided against a particular format, they could kill it by refusing to support processing for it. Kodak, as the largest film manufacturer of the 20th century, epitomized this stance. If they felt that one of their markets or products was threatened, particularly in the USA, their reaction would be swift and decisive. For instance, right after WWII, when certain Japanese camera makers wanted to adopt a 32x24mm format, Kodak simply said no. As the Japanese camera industry's re-birth was completely reliant on exports, they had to supply cameras that were compatible with the film formats used in the US. That meant the 135 Kodak format (commonly known as 35mm) was what they had to design for. This would be a pattern of things to come.
Following a downturn in the Japanese economy after the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, Olympus sought to strengthen its overseas sales. The American market was untapped as far as half-frame cameras were concerned...and it would stay that way. Kodak wanted to protect its own compact, affordable Instamatic camera market, for which it also supplied the 126 (26x26mm) format film cartridges. It had developed (no pun intended) the 126 drop-in cartridge format in 1963 as an more convenient film-loading alternative to the standard 135 roll. It also made for a smaller camera size at the time. If they now supported the half-frame format (which used the standard 135 roll and a small camera) by providing processing for customers, it would cannibalize 126 sales and processing charges. Half-frame would also allow people to get twice as many exposures per 135 roll, and those sales would suffer. So, again, Kodak simply refused to support the half-frame format. The result? In Maitani-san's own words:
Japanese manufacturers were happy to support us because the half-size camera was made in Japan. This attitude of helping each other was a driving force for Japan's industrial development. Fuji and Konishi both produced half-size mounts, and so did Agfa. Only Kodak refused, which meant we couldn't sell our cameras in America. However, the executive in charge of exports to America refused to accept this. He told me that we must meet our quota, and the only way to do that was to make a 35mm SLR.
Kodak could not have anticipated the result of that decision. It certainly didn't affect them immediately (15 years later, the fallout would arrive). But it would have major repercussions within the Japanese SLR camera industry, and Olympus' standing within it. Maitani's stature within Olympus had grown with each success of his innovative designs. Olympus had already begun research and development into 35mm SLRs when the Pen F was being developed. However, there were not enough resources to fund both projects so the 35mm project had been shelved in favor of the Pen F. Once the half-frame market had diminished, however, 35mm camera development became a high priority as the above quote confirms. The difference now was that Maitani, having finished the Pen F project, was appointed to lead the 35mm SLR design team. He did not simply want to copy the designs of the other manufacturers. He wanted something to set Olympus apart from the Big 4.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence of Leitz on the pre- and post-WWII Japanese camera industry. From the start, it was the gold standard all of the major manufacturers applied themselves to. It was by building lenses for the Leica M39 screw-mount cameras that Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) and Canon first came to the attention of western photographers. Minolta was perhaps the most assiduous imitator of Leica in the early 1950s in both camera and lens design philosophies. They were so successful in assimilating the Leica ethos that in 1972 Leitz formed a collaborative relationship with Minolta that extended into the 1980s. In 1957, Asahi Optical Company introduced the Pentax, the first Japanese SLR with an eye-level pentaprism finder and instant-return mirror. It was clear that the Leica M3 rangefinder, of 1954, was the target they were aiming for as far as the SLR design would allow in form factor. The Pentax weighed 570 grams to the M3's 580. However, as time went on and the camera makers integrated more and more features into their SLRs, their size and weight slowly crept up.
Leica also served to inspire Yoshihisa Maitani. He had used a IIIf as his personal camera, and when it came to designing Olympus' entry into the 35mm SLR field, he wanted to combine the versatility of the SLR with the compact, dense feel of the rangefinder. Notice his feelings on the subject:
The development of the modern SLR was the culmination of efforts by Japanese manufacturers. The SLR emerged as a superb camera for the non-half-size market: it could take close-up and long-distance shots, and it had many advantages. In one sense we aspired to make SLRs, yet I didn't want to make something that you could already buy in a store. I had my philosophy. What should I do? I researched the problem, and I thought about it from the perspective of my own experience.
It took until the end of 1967 for Maitani-san to convince his superiors that his concept of a much smaller, lighter, and yet still rugged and reliable SLR was what Olympus needed to pursue rather than just following the standard of the other camera constructors. Actual design and development took over 5 years. In July 1972, the Olympus M-1 was finally introduced. Leitz crops up one more time here. They felt that the model name was too similar to their M-series of rangefinders even though it stood for Maitani and it was an S...L...R. Perhaps the concept and execution hit a little too close for comfort for them. After all, it was the Japanese SLR that had pushed the rangefinder into the background, and Leica's own SLR designs weren't a raging sales success, either. Anyways, Olympus changed the model designation to OM-1 and history was made. A version with an electronically-controlled shutter and a new method of metering off-the-film (OTF), the OM-2, was introduced in 1975. The effect of the OM series on the other manufacturers was not long in coming...
Next time...The Revolution spreads...to the Big 4
Suffers from a quarter-century and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.