The Pen-F, the OM system and the XAby designer/engineer Yoshihisa Maitani
A talk from 2005, a few years before his passing
|The Pen-F SLR was a great achievement.|
A Leica was not good for telelenses or for
closeup photos, so this system concentrated
on those important areas.
One of the things that I've noticed looking at the Museum's exhibits about different manufacturers is that each manufacturer has its own "color". I'm sure that Olympus also has its color, too. Yet even though I was involved in designing Olympus cameras, no-one instructed or ordered me to use a particular color. The color just seemed to emerge from somewhere. Perhaps my color became the color of Olympus, but I believe that there is an Olympus color.
My involvement in camera design lasted around 20 years, from the Olympus Pen in 1959 to the XA Series in 1979. The theme for this program is the history of Olympus, and today I'd like to speak about the period from the early beginnings of Olympus cameras until the development of the Pen F as the last product in the Pen Series. In the next session I'll cover the period between the OM Series and the XA Series.
Olympus began to manufacture microscopes in the 1920s under the name Takachiho Seisakusho. I wasn't around in the 1920s, but I've heard that the founder of Olympus had made a fortune trading sugar and decided to use that money to start up a microscope manufacturing business in Japan. I'm told that he faced a difficult struggle, since at that time Japan had no tradition of microscope manufacturing and lacked the necessary technology. Apparently they began by creating products that looked like microscopes and learned the technology from scientists working at the University of Tokyo.
In 1920, Olympus launched its first microscopes, one of which was actually used by the Emperor. The company then began to consider expansion and diversification. Because of its beginnings as a microscope manufacturer, Olympus had become specialized in the production of lenses and was looking for another lens-based product. What they chose was cameras. As with microscopes, they started to develop a camera by first designing the lens. I have the greatest admiration for these pioneers, for the lens is the soul of the camera.
In the late 1920s they also began to develop shutters. However, you can't make a camera from just a lens and a shutter. Olympus was a microscope manufacturer, and so they needed someone who knew about cameras. Again they turned to the University of Tokyo Research Institute for assistance and were introduced to Eiichi Sakurai. Then a student at the university, Sakurai had a keen interest in photography. After recruiting him, the company was at last ready to start designing cameras.
Eiichi Sakurai joined Olympus in 1935, and this marked the beginning of Olympus cameras. His profound understanding of cameras allowed Olympus to bring a variety of new products to the market. Manufacturing is a complex business: you need to invest around a billion yen in facilities and equipment just to make one simple camera. For a camera like the OM, the cost is almost 10 billion yen, so there are always debates and problems.
I was eventually able to get my own way and develop the OM SLR camera. We also created compact SLR cameras, which sold worldwide. You might think that everything was smooth sailing for me, but there were mountains to climb and chasms to cross. Somehow I found a way through, and as a result we were able to create these products.
Deciding which products to make is the same as deciding how to live your life. What matters most is your vision. You must have a vision, a dream, a philosophy, for the course of your future will change depending on whether or not you have a vision. You can't simply drift through life nonchalantly; the first step is to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life. Even after you've made that decision, the rest of the world is unlikely to move according to your plans.
This much is clear if you think about Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. Eventually you will run into opposition or obstacles. There is a best-selling book called Baka no Kabe (Idiot Barrier). I believe there are two barriers: the technology barrier and the barrier of accepted wisdom. You can't achieve anything until you break through both of these barriers. It may seem strange for a designer to talk about these two barriers, but I will do my best.
My philosophy has its roots in the code by which I lived when young. On a personal note, I'd like to speak briefly about the source of my philosophy.
I was a wastrel son with a keen interest in photography. My family had a soy sauce manufacturing business in Shikoku. There was a Leica IIIf in the house, which I took out and used without asking. From the second half of my middle school years and all through high school, I could think of nothing else but photography. One of my school teachers introduced me to a photography club, which I joined. There were only six of us, a group of wastrel sons. We had five Leica IIIf cameras and one Rolleiflex. At that time a Leica IIIf cost about 190,000 yen, while the average monthly salary for a government employee in those days was around 7,000 yen. Though we were all wastrel sons, we had advanced skills, and at least one of us was mentioned each month in camera magazines. We used 100mm lenses to take long-distance shots and 28mm lenses for extreme close-up photography. We even won prizes!
Though I loved photography, I had no intention of making it my career. It was difficult and demanding work, and I doubted whether I could make a living through photography, so I considered other careers. I saw photography as nothing more than a hobby that I could enjoy. There were no precision engineering courses at Waseda University, where I was studying, so I chose automotive engineering. I did basic research into engines, specifically what are now known as turbo-engines. It should have been plain sailing, but I spent all my time taking photographs and wondering if I was on the right track. It was at that time that Eiichi Sakurai, creator of the first Olympus camera, happened to discover a camera patent that I had filed while still at school. “Come and work for us,” he insisted. In those days a student who refused to work for the first company to offer him a job was regarded as a disgrace to his university. I had received a job offer from an automobile manufacturer, but I pretended that I hadn't and so went to work for Olympus instead.
How did my great love of photography lead to a career in camera design? What prompted me was the fact that the Leica IIIf was far from being a good all-round camera. It was not suitable for photographing flowers. Though the Leica was good for a certain range of photography, it was certainly not an all-round camera. When I found a type of subject that I couldn't shoot, I started to search for a camera that I could use. And when I couldn't find one, I decided that the only solution was to build one myself. However, the Leica was too expensive to play with, so I bought six or seven old-style micro-cameras and began to modify them.
Even after joining Olympus, my goal was still to take photographs. It was also fun to polish cameras and look at them. My most basic motivation was my desire to take good photographs. If I could find a camera that helped me to get the perfect shot, I would buy it, and if I couldn't, I'd make it. Years later I realized that my decision to join Olympus was the right choice for someone like me!
In my early days with Olympus, I must have seemed very conceited for someone who had only just joined the company. Because I'd won prizes, I saw myself as a professional, but as a camera designer I was a complete amateur. More experienced people looked at my drawings and just groaned. I had drawn blueprints at university, but I didn't really know how difficult it was.
They sent me to the factory for two years of practical training. During that time I was rotated to different areas of the factory every six months, and after two years I returned to the design department. However, my senior colleagues were all too busy to spend time looking after this new employee who had just been sent back to work with them, so they decided to give me difficult tasks that I could study by myself. “Try designing something,” they told me.
After thinking about the work in my own way, I became aware of a problem. At that time the cheapest Olympus camera cost around 23,000 yen, but that was one and a half months' salary for a new employee. Cameras were too expensive. I decided to create a camera that would cost no more than half a month's salary, which in my case meant 6,000 yen. My supervisors supported this idea. Even today, when camera prices are discounted everywhere, something offered at half-price would be viewed with suspicion - people would worry that there was something wrong with it. So what would people think if we reduced the price to one-quarter? Surely that would seem impossible. My supervisors agreed to go ahead with my 6,000 yen idea. I had put my head on the line.
I always used my Leica for photographs to submit to photo contests. Yet, I was curious to see how well the camera I designed can take pictures. I took many pictures with the camera, and compared the results with the ones I took with the Leica. Perhaps it was because I was more relaxed when using the camera that I'd designed, and more strained to take a good picture with the Leica, there were lots of good photos taken by the camera of my design. After processing and enlarging shots taken with the Leica and with the camera that I'd designed, I would be angry when the images from my own camera weren't as sharply focused as those from the Leica. I wanted the quality of the photographs to be at least equal.
I wanted to emulate the Tessar lens in the Leica camera. Because a half-size camera has a small image plane, enlargement ratios need to be proportionately greater, which obviously puts greater demands on the lens. We needed to create a lens as good as the Leica's Tessar.
Olympus already had its own lens design department at this time, so I sought their assistance. I told them I needed a lens of the best quality, one that would be equal to the Leica Tessar. The person in charge of lens design told me that this was the first time he had received such a request. He said that they were usually asked to cut costs by a certain amount, or to create the best possible lens within a certain price range. I had said nothing about the price. I simply asked them to make a lens as good as the Leica lens. The lens designers were delighted to take up this challenge, and the result was the legendary D-Zuiko. They created a really wonderful lens for me.
However, there was no way that a 6,000 yen camera could compete with a 200,000 yen Leica. I'd spent so much on the lens that there was no money left. My supervisors were concerned about the cost of the lens, but no-one blamed me. After all, it was a training project, and while they sympathized, they didn't really care what happened! We had created the ideal lens, but we couldn't spend any more money on the camera.
Leica's new M3 had a film advance mechanism operated by a lever instead of a knob. The frame counter would automatically revert to zero when you opened the cover. Today this seems obvious, but back then the mechanism was leading-edge. The rewind mechanism was also lever-operated. In fact the M3 was packed with new technology, including a bright frame range finder with a range that changed according to the lens you were using. Other camera manufacturers were desperately trying to catch up with the Leica M3.
Human ingenuity is truly amazing. Olympus was also trying to improve its film advance mechanism. However, switching to a lever mechanism would have required replacing about 40 components. We couldn't afford the expense, so we opted for a rear-winding film advance system that had a similar feel to Leica's lever system. Our system consisted of a single plastic dial. One solution would require 50 changes, the other just one. And because the part was made of plastic, it was cheap. We abandoned the idea of a frame counter that would automatically revert to zero when the cover was opened.
During my training in the factory, I learned that frame counter mechanisms are quite complex. Sometimes they would wind forward two frames instead of one, while other times the film did not advance at all. The mechanism contained about 30 parts, and there were checks at each of the 36 manufacturing stages. Over and over again, Olympus invested huge amounts of money. There was a 36-tooth gear wheel, and above that a 35-tooth pressed gear wheel. These went round one tooth at a time, and because one wheel had 36 teeth and the other 35, there was a one-unit discrepancy. With pressed gears, you don't need to exert a lot of force. The cost is only 2 yen or thereabouts, and no testing is needed, since there can be no errors once the teeth have been processed. Anyway, because we had spent so much on the lens, we had to apply a lot of ingenuity to the other parts.
The Pen was gradually taking shape, but as we moved closer to our initial goal of creating a cheap camera, we encountered two barriers. The first was the technology barrier, the same barrier I hit when I wanted to photograph something but couldn't find a suitable camera. If something doesn't exist, there must be a reason. Perhaps it would be extremely expensive or technically impossible. Or maybe it couldn't be made sufficiently compact. If you want to meet these challenges, you have to break through the technology barrier. That's the first barrier.
I'm happy to report that we were somehow able to break through the technology barrier. Because I was a new designer working on a research problem, nobody complained, and I was able to design according to my ideas. Eventually I built a prototype. When Mr. Sakurai saw it, he immediately said “Let's manufacture it.” It's very unusual to look at the result of a new employee's training project and decide there and then to manufacture it. But Olympus has a culture in which people are able to act boldly. This same spirit of creativity allowed us to create cameras that could take photographs inside people's stomachs. That's why I like Olympus. You can be free of that endless process of debate about whether something will sell and how much it will cost.
So my prototype was about to go into production, and I was excited. But even though the decision to produce my camera had come from the very top, the factory manager refused to manufacture my “toy camera.” Half-size cameras didn't exist then, and sales executives told us that my camera wouldn't sell because there was no market for it. This was the second barrier. Accepted wisdom told us that the camera couldn't be made and wouldn't sell. Since our factory wouldn't make it, we decided to outsource production. That was how the Pen first came into being. And as soon as it went on sale, it became a best-seller.
In those days camera manufacturers measured their output in hundreds of units per month, with the average being 200 or 300. Olympus had a hit product called the Olympus Wide, and we were wondering if production would hit 1,000 units per month. Once we got past the 1,000 mark, we could use conveyor belts.
I was allowed to attend and speak at the planning meeting held when the Olympus Pen went into production. Someone asked me how many I expected to sell. Statistics had just been published showing that there were 7 million cameras in all of Japan, including those tucked away in the bottoms of drawers. I thought that half the number, say 3 million, would be replaced by half-sized cameras, and that Olympus could capture half of that market, so I replied that we could sell 1.5 million units. Everyone was astonished and laughed out loud. Eventually we decided on a monthly production figure of 5,000, which was unprecedented. But the Pen sold so quickly that production couldn't keep up with demand, and soon sales staff were demanding to know when we could send more stock.
When we developed the Pen S, we priced it at 7,000 yen. The factory manager who had refused to produce the Pen now begged to be allowed to make this camera. I felt that I had at last earned recognition within the company, and that I had finally broken through the barrier of accepted wisdom. This was due in part to the support of my superiors, who were able to see beyond the barrier, but another factor was the support of the countless users who bought the camera after it was released.
In those days, almost all camera buyers were men: men accounted for about 98% of the market, and women around 2%. Men like machines. They dream of Harley-Davidsons. That's why we made cameras with so many controls. The accepted wisdom was that real cameras had to have lots of controls.
However, a month after Olympus launched the Pen, I happened to see a mother photographing her little boy while I was on my way to work. She was using a Pen. I was so excited to see someone using the camera that I'd designed. But after I watched her for a few seconds I started to worry. I wanted to warn her that the picture would be out of focus with those settings.
It was then that I decided to design a camera that a woman like that would use. There would be no difficult controls. It would be so simple that the user would just have to push a single button. Yet this concept was the exact opposite of the cameras that were selling well on the market. The sales staff told me that it wouldn't be a proper camera, and I later heard that a conference of branch managers had also concluded that my design would not be a real camera. The head of the sales division came to see me in person and tried to persuade me to abandon the idea. I'd only been with Olympus for about three years, and it was only a year since I'd returned to the design department after my training in the factory. I was just a youngster. And yet this executive came to see me. He sat down with me and begged me to give up my idea. I impudently countered each of his arguments, and we continued to argue from morning until the end of the day. However, a junior employee cannot expect to win an argument with a division chief.
I realized that the barrier of accepted wisdom was about to prevent my idea from becoming reality, so I asked him to wait until the next day, when the prototype would be ready. I worked all through that night, and the next day I showed him the camera. He played with it in silence for about 30 minutes. Finally he looked at me and said, “Maitani, let's do it!” As the proverb says, a wise man will change his opinion, a fool never. I was filled with admiration, and wondered if I would have been able to change my mind like that if our roles had been reversed. It's not easy. And so we decided to manufacture the new camera.
At the final planning session, I proposed a price of 8,000 yen. The sales people said that the price should be 10,000 yen. I had been involved in the design of many cameras, but never before had the sales people wanted to set the price higher than the figure suggested by the developers. That rarely happens. Ultimately the new camera went on sale at 10,000 yen, and it became a huge best-seller.
Once we had broken through the barrier of accepted wisdom and created the product, it immediately became a best-seller. Half the people in the world are women, and I'm sure that even some of the younger people here have seen Pen cameras in their homes. We sold 17 million, an unprecedented number. According to the data, the percentage of female buyers jumped from 2 percent to 33 percent after the launch of the Pen EE.
This Camera Museum was originally founded as the Japan Camera and Optical Instruments Inspection and Testing Institute (JCII). A JCII official repeatedly told us that our new product was not a real camera, and that we should abandon the project! You might think that it's been plain sailing for me, but I've always been an unpopular member of the Olympus organization!
Companies, married couples, parents and children experience a variety of changes in their lives. It's our philosophy and passion that carry us through these changes. Whenever we try to do something new, we invariably encounter the barriers of technology and the accepted wisdom. The Pen camera resulted from our efforts to break through these barriers. I was lucky when we were developing the Pen series. I was lucky to have superiors who could see beyond the barriers, and even more lucky to have the support of users. It was this good fortune that propelled me through the second barrier.
Initially there were no plans to create a series of cameras. We just focused on developing a single model that would emulate some of the characteristics of the Leica. I never spoke about developing a series, but I was thinking about it. I also thought that the Pen would never become popular unless we developed it as a series. Ideally all of the products in a series should be launched at the same time, but this was not possible because I was doing all of the design work. When a new model is launched, the old model usually disappears. With the Pen, even when we brought out new models, the old models never went away. Each model had its own role as part of the series. Other manufacturers rushed to create their own series of half-size cameras - that was the great half-size boom.
However, manufacturers thought that users would want a 35mm, an SLR, as their main camera, and half-size cameras were seen as sub-cameras. At first I never thought of making a half-size SLR camera, but after the boom began, users began to demand half-size SLRs.
In the mid-1950s, there was no television in the house where I lived, and so I used to spend my evenings reading novels. In those quiet moments, I began to reflect on the half-size boom, and to wonder if people would want a half-size SLR camera.
It wasn't simply a matter of halving the design of a normal 35mm camera. A 35mm camera is wide. The mirror swings up around its long axis, so it's the short side that rises. Of course, it would be disastrous if the mirror hit the lens. Today, retrofocus lenses are commonplace. With a half-size camera, everything is cut in half, so the mirror has to rotate around its short axis. This means that there is greater risk that the mirror will hit the lens. We couldn't allow the long side of the mirror to swivel up, so we created the first SLR camera with a mirror that swiveled sideways. But this created a new problem, since light going to the side no longer reached the eye. While I was thinking about this at home, I came up with the idea of directing the sideways light upwards.
The next challenge was the shutter. Flipping the mirror horizontally also lengthened it horizontally, and now it was hitting the shutter. This wouldn't work. Finally I decided to use a rotary focal plane shutter. The concept was so unusual that I was often asked if the camera had a focal plane shutter. Working on puzzles like this is a much more interesting after-dinner activity than reading a mystery novel!
Anyway, I thought that if I could develop a focal plane shutter, I could create an SLR camera, even though it would be longer horizontally. I assembled the ideas I had developed to break through the technology barrier and took them into my office, where I put them in my desk drawer. We were still extremely busy with the design and manufacture of the Pen.
The Pen was a major hit, with sales in excess of four million units. Some time later Mr. Sakurai, the head of design, told me that people were asking for an SLR camera and asked me for my thoughts. I took the drawings that I had produced while working on the Pen out of my drawer and immediately showed them to my manager. At first he was surprised, because the camera was a different shape from a conventional SLR. I explained each of the features to him, and eventually he told me to go ahead.
It occurred to me then that if you wait until someone gives you an order to start work on a project, you lose around half a year. But if you exercise your mind all the time when you're busy, ideas will come into your head, and they will lead you to something new.
With the Pen selling so well, I no longer faced the barrier of accepted wisdom in my work. Instead I was told to make new cameras more quickly. However, the technology barrier was still there. I couldn't handle the design work alone any more, and for the first time I was given an assistant. My assistant was the leading theoretician in the development department, and he said that he wanted to begin by making a rotary shutter. What he created had all the basic characteristics of a rotary shutter, which consists of a rotating disk. It looked great, and I decided to leave the project to my junior colleague. Unfortunately it did not go as planned: each rotation took about one-fiftieth of a second. We tried in vain to make it go faster, for an SLR camera with a top shutter speed of one-sixtieth of a second was unthinkable.
We concluded that the only way to increase the speed of the shutter was to reduce the weight. Apertures and shutters are made of thin steel sheet. The steel is about six hundredths of a millimeter thick, which makes it too heavy to rotate any faster, so we tried using aluminum, which is lighter than steel. We found that the connection between the shaft and the vanes was not durable enough, so we increased the number of fasteners. Once we had securely fastened the vanes at one end, they started to break at the other end. The shutter would rotate, but the sudden force applied when it stopped caused a massive shock. The aluminum sheet crumpled like a fan. This was hopeless, so we decided to look for other light materials. The next substance that we tried was titanium, which was being used by NASA. Titanium was very rare at that time, and the purchasing department desperately searched for a source. Eventually they found a supplier somewhere in Yokosuka. We only needed a minute quantity for our prototype, but the supplier refused to sell the titanium piecemeal, and so we were forced to buy an entire roll. It was extremely expensive, but fortunately we were able to use it later, otherwise we would have incurred a huge loss.
By using titanium, we were able to increase the speed to one three-hundredth of a second. But it still wasn't fast enough, so we made the titanium even thinner, but it crumpled like a fan. Then we remembered a technology used in microscope manufacturing, whereby the glass is etched away in the center leaving it thick at the circumference. When we etched the titanium in the same way, we were able to increase the speed almost to one five-hundredth of a second. But even this was not fast enough. The only solution now was to strengthen the spring. That enabled us to achieve a speed of one five-hundredth of a second initially, but the spring would break after a few repetitions. When we examined the affected parts under a microscope, we saw that even though the spring was made of ordinary steel, it looked like a rough piece of rope that had been pulled apart. It was metal fatigue.
Eventually we solved the problem by using a special spring made of Swedish steel. We had reached the 500 mark, but we still had to find a way to accommodate slower speeds. Today we can do this with computers, but back then we had to use mechanical gears. The shutter membrane must be held in the fully open position, which puts the gears under a tremendous strain. They told me that the mechanism just stopped. In fact the gears had been totally stripped; half the teeth had been broken off. We overcame each of these problems in turn, and eventually we were somehow able to build our focal plane shutter.
And that is how we developed the Pen F. We had created the world's first and only SLR camera. Unfortunately it was a huge failure. Because we took all the patents, no other company could manufacture this type of camera, and there was no boom.
This completes the first half of my presentation. I thought that I was challenging the two barriers with my own vision, but in fact I was simply working within the Olympus color.
Thank you for coming here today for the second lecture of this series. In the first session I spoke about Olympus' early camera-related activities between the 1920s and the introduction of the Pen F. Today I will talk mainly about cameras that I designed, from the OM-1 to the OM-4, and also the XA.
The Pen F was launched in 1963. In 1966 we put the Pen FT and the Pen FV on the market. This is where my previous presentation ended. It was around this time that we began developing a 35mm SLR. With an SLR, it isn't enough just to produce a body. You also need exchangeable lenses and other accessories. It takes a lot of time to complete a system.
It was in 1966 that we perfected the Pen FT, the world's first half-size TTL SLR. We had completed the camera, and now we were under intense pressure from users. In the midst of that struggle, I was asked to develop a 35mm SLR. I considered refusing because I was so busy with the Pen….
To understand why Olympus wanted to make a 35mm SLR you need to understand the social situation in Japan at that time. Japan was experiencing a mild recession in the aftermath of the Tokyo Olympics and cameras were not selling well on the domestic market, so we needed to focus on overseas sales. Unfortunately, Kodak refused to support the half-size concept because the film mounts would cost twice as much. A “no” from Kodak meant that we couldn't sell our cameras in America. However, Agfa agreed to produce the mounts, and we enjoyed excellent sales in Germany and the Netherlands.
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.
Photography was the starting point for everything I did. Whether the camera was a half-size or an SLR, my sole concern was that it could take good photographs. Though Olympus wanted to make a 35mm, I didn't feel that I had to do it, because SLRs were already on the shelves in camera shops for everyone to buy.
In fact Olympus was already developing a 35mm SLR when the Pen boom was at its height. They had completed research and design and were close to starting production. It clashed with the Pen F project, and Olympus had to decide which project should take priority. In the end, they decided to move ahead with the Pen F because of the profile Olympus had built as a manufacturer of half-size cameras.
I thought we could simply restart the existing 35mm SLR development project, but it wasn't that easy. I had started out using a Leica, and my enthusiasm for photography was such that I had even had pictures published in magazines. So I told the sales people that I didn't see any gap that needed to be filled, and that there was no need for me to make the camera. They replied that the new camera could be just the same as those made by other manufacturers, but I thought exactly the opposite. I wanted to make something that didn't exist. They said it was fine to make something that was the same as existing products. They even said we could buy it!
However, Japan was about to enter its period of rapid economic growth and manufacturing was seen as a crucial activity, so my attitude was unthinkable in that context. Manufacturing know-how was vital. By outsourcing production or buying in products from other manufacturers, companies risked losing their know-how. There were even movies about industrial espionage.
Yet the sales people were happy with that approach. They said it would be quicker. I asked them if a user would choose a Nikon or a Pentax or a camera sold by Olympus that was the same as these cameras, for I would certainly have bought the original products. But the sales people said that it was fine. I was completely perplexed!
The Leica that I was using before I joined Olympus was truly an excellent camera - it was almost perfect for snapshot photography. But there was a problem. These days when we want to copy documents we simply go to a convenience store, but back then the only way to make copies was to photograph documents. I needed to copy some material for my graduation thesis, and because I saw myself as an expert with the Leica, I tried using it to photograph the papers. It didn't work, because I didn't have an accessory that allowed me to take photographs at a distance of 30 to 40 centimeters.
So I borrowed an early Pentax SLR camera and used that to photograph my documents. There was nothing the Leica couldn't do, be it close-ups of flowers or copies of documents. But these tasks were extremely difficult. With an SLR it was simple. I thought that if I was going to get involved in development, this was the field for me.
However, Pentax SLRs were big and heavy, substantially bigger and heavier than the Leica. The designers had worked hard to reduce the size, but still they were bigger than the Leica. For someone like me who always carries a camera around, this was a real nuisance.
If you wanted a normal SLR, you could go and buy it. But what was missing?
The first SLR camera, the Exakta, was developed in Germany. Zeiss created the original SLR by installing a pentaprism in a Contax-S camera. Though the SLR was born in Germany, however, the efforts of Japanese manufacturers played a major role in its subsequent development. Pentax produced a device called a “quick return mirror.” In early SLRs, once the shutter had been released, the mirror stayed up and you couldn't see anything. It was totally dark. The quick return mirror was the result of much effort, and it was extremely popular.
Another problem was the aperture. To see through the finder, you need a bright lens, so the aperture should be open. However, when shooting, the aperture should be at F8 or F11, rather than fully open. So the aperture had to be open when looking through the finder, and closed when shooting. We used to call this the “wink aperture.” There was a SLR lens manufacturer called Zunow, and they made a wink aperture system for this camera.
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.
|The OM system influenced virtually all future SLRs|
Ultimately, I realized that the real reason why I couldn't get enthusiastic about conventional SLRs was the problem of their weight and size. This is a major difference of 35mm cameras compared with the Leica. The half-size camera that I made was also the result of my efforts to create a smaller camera.
Olympus started out as a microscope manufacturer but grew into an integrated developer and manufacturer of optical instruments, including cameras and endoscopes.
As I said in the previous session, Olympus was the first Japanese company to exhibit at the Photokina show in Germany. Photokina is a huge event and it was expensive to exhibit there, costing more than the sales division was permitted to approve; board approval was required. Once Olympus had decided to exhibit, it also wanted to display its microscopes and endoscopes, but Photokina is a camera show, and in those days they wouldn't accept products other than cameras.
The person responsible was extremely worried by pressure from executives in other divisions. When I heard about this situation I had only just joined Olympus, but I resolved in my heart that one day I would create something that would allow Olympus to show all of its products. So when I began to develop an SLR I thought I could provide an image recording solution, as I had resolved to make a camera that would give Olympus the opportunity to display all of its products, including endoscopes and microscopes. In short, I was going to create a full-featured system SLR.
An SLR camera can photograph anything. However, an endoscope produces a round image, while the finder in a camera is square. The light will not go through a normal finder, and you need to replace the finder screen. I realized that if I was going to develop an entire system, I would need to change the finder screen.
I also had to reduce the size. However, my ideas were not accepted without a struggle. Japan had entered its high-growth era and Japanese companies were growing dramatically. Technology was being used to create new functions, and this led to the introduction of new products. Companies wanted their products to be heavier, taller, longer and bigger, and it was a time of growth in shipbuilding and steel. My idea was to make something smaller, and if we couldn't do that, we should simply buy products from other manufacturers. Yet from a sales viewpoint, there would be problems if the camera was simply smaller without providing anything new.
They told me that something that was just small would have no impact and would not be viable as a commercial product. It took the whole of 1967, from January to December, before they finally understood my concept. At a planning meeting in December, my superior, Mr. Sakurai, said that it was time to go ahead with my idea of creating a smaller camera. It had taken a year to break through the barrier of accepted wisdom. We had finally reached a decision, albeit through coercion.
When I designed the Pen, I worked alone. Now I had a staff of about 100. But 100 people giving 100 percent will not result in a hit product. To create technology that will spawn hit products, you need people who will give 120 percent.
If people think they are merely making something smaller, they will only give 80 percent, and in the end they will start to say that the task is impossible. That's the technology barrier. Our goal was to create a small camera, but how small? In advertising, you announce that your product is the world's smallest, even if you've only reduced the size by a millimeter or a gram. As a camera user, I looked at the problem from the user's perspective. I realized that it was meaningless to reduce the size by one or two millimeters, since the difference would only be apparent if you measured the camera with a ruler. Basically, you perceive the size of a camera by holding it in your hand. I wanted to achieve a big enough reduction in size and weight that people would realize that the camera was smaller and lighter than one they'd held in their hands a month earlier.
The designers said that they wanted more specific figures, so I told them that the camera wouldn't feel smaller unless the size was halved! It was simple to say “reduce it by half,” but that was an extremely difficult goal. People would complain about the size and weight of SLRs without thinking, but the people who designed those cameras worked hard to make them as light and small as possible, and produced the SLRs that were on store shelves in those days. As you might expect, people said it was unreasonable to demand a half-size reduction.
The heaviest SLR in those days was the Nikon, which weighed about 1.4 kilograms. Half of that is about 700 grams. I also wanted to halve the total volume, which meant reductions of about 20 percent in both height and depth. Those targets brought screams from our design staff - of course it was unreasonable! They told me it was impossible, and it was! I realized that I had set unreasonable targets when I dismantled a camera. If we made it smaller it would be weaker. And a weaker camera would not be suitable for the full-featured SLR that I wanted to create.
One problem was the development of an alternative finder, and another was durability. The question was how many times the camera could be used. An expensive camera was good for 10,000 shots, but I wanted to increase that to 100,000. Naturally, the designers who were given this task were daunted. However, we had to do it somehow, because management had finally approved the concept after a year of deliberations.
The interior of an SLR is not all crowded; there are crowded areas and empty areas. The crowded areas are those containing the core functions, such as advancing the film, releasing the shutter and changing the shutter speed. These areas can be likened to the central administrative district of a big city, like the Kasumigaseki district in Tokyo. Nowadays we have digital cameras, and the signals simply pass through wires, but in those days everything was mechanical. All the signals had to be connected, so these areas were very crowded.
Around this time the Japanese government was talking about relocating Japan's capital functions away from Tokyo. This gave me the idea of relocating some of the core functions in the camera. But where could we put them? The area beneath the mirror was furthest away from the core functions, but it would be extremely difficult to move the functions there. It would have been simple with today's electronic technology, but everything was mechanical back then, and all the mechanisms had to be connected.
My first idea was to find underutilized areas in the camera and relocate some of the functions to those areas. However, those spaces were underutilized for a reason! We couldn't connect the functions. We found that by using a central drive shaft running from the top of the camera to the bottom we could transmit the driving force, even in those underutilized spaces. However, some functions, such as shutter speed adjustment, couldn't be moved. To relocate the shutter speed control, we would have had to put the dial on the bottom of the camera, which would have created many problems: the photographer would have had to turn the camera upside down to adjust the speed, and the dial would have been inaccessible when the camera was on a tripod. However, there was space, and we had reached a decision that functions should be relocated to that space. It was not difficult to move the strength controls. The problem was the linkage between the shutter speed and other controls. The method that we devised to move things from the bottom of the camera to the top was to place the shutter dial on the front of the camera. That was the only solution, and so that is what we did. Only the OM had a shutter speed dial in that location.
You use your left hand to set the aperture, shutter and distance, so this position is actually more ergonomic. That's how we created the camera. We decided to put the shutter dial on the lens mount, and then the underutilized space suddenly became as busy as the Ginza!
When I proposed this design, someone who knew cameras well told me that there were two types of SLR: the lens shutter type and focal plane type, and that the focal plane type was seen as a high-end camera and the lens shutter type as a rather cheap version. In a lens shutter camera, the shutter is in front, and of course the aperture and shutter are positioned around the lens. He said that our camera would be mistaken for a cheap lens shutter type and would not sell.
It's difficult to break through the barrier of accepted wisdom. However, we were able to make so much progress with the design because originally there was nothing in the underutilized space in the camera. In the upper part of the camera there was a battle for spaces measured in tenths of a millimeter. In the lower part there was nothing, which meant that while the camera itself would be smaller, its parts could be bigger and stronger. So the concept of using underutilized spaces was our first step on the road to developing a compact SLR.
A prototype camera called the “MDN” was displayed in an Olympus camera show. Most people think that the OM-1 was the first Olympus SLR, but in fact the MDN preceded it. Our aim with the MDN was to create a camera that would make people think about what truly makes a full-featured system SLR. We applied a one-function, one-unit concept. The film was in a single film pack, and the shutter provided just the focal plane shutter function. The mirror was just a mirror and had just one function. The user could combine the desired functions to create a single camera. This is not the concept of the SLR camera. We were trying to create a full-featured system camera, even with a lens shutter. The relocation of functions made that possible, and the result was the MDN.
However, when you try to design a system that can be put together in any configuration, it becomes extremely difficult to design the mounts used to connect the items. This is because you must be able to connect everything mechanically even though not all units have mounts attached to them. You can't begin until all the units have been designed. That's because people ask you to make changes to different parts during the design process. These repeated changes culminated in the MDN, which is now on display as part of the Olympus exhibit in the JCII Camera Museum. All this took a lot of time, and of course the sales people wanted the camera immediately, saying they couldn't wait.
The M system was a full-featured, multifunctional camera system. Yet we also saw a cheap, mass-market camera as one of the units in that system. Three units would be combined to create a single system. Though there would be less freedom in the way the units were combined, costs would be lower. This was the MDS. The “N” in MDN stands for “normal,” and the “S” in MDS for “simple”. It was included in this system as the unit most geared toward the mass-market. However, I was focused on designing the MDN as a full-featured system camera, and was not involved in designing the MDS. But I was told that time was short, and so it was decided that this unit, which we had intended to design last, would be produced first. The MDS was made as a test camera for this purpose. “M” is the first letter of the name of someone you all know! Nobody objected. The “D” stands for “dark box” and the “S” for “simple.” So the product that we had envisaged as a mass-market camera was made first. That was the first M-1.
However, every manufacturer had tried to develop smaller SLRs, and I was asking the production staff to do something that others had been unable to do. It was a challenge for the designers as well as for those in production. They wanted us to add 1 millimeter here and 3 millimeters there. There was a battery compartment in the bottom of the camera, and we wanted to insert packing to make it at least splash-proof, if not waterproof, but there was not enough space. When I yielded and gave them 1 millimeter, they immediately produced a design. They were so happy! People were competing for millimeters of space. For example, we had used a millimeter for the lever on the side. Then the lens people said that they produced a design that would eliminate the need for that millimeter. It was really annoying. I told them to go back to the dimensions that I had originally approved, but they said they couldn't. They said the battery compartment was fine, but that we couldn't revert to the original dimensions.
So the camera we have now is a millimeter taller than the dimensions that I first approved! That's how we did things.
After completing the design of the Pen, I became a section or department manager. At that time Olympus had a camera division, which consisted of production and development departments linked side by side. The head of the development department told me that the production department appeared to be having trouble. This manager, who had originally been involved in microscope development, was apparently unable to stand by and ignore this problem.
Mr. Sakurai, who was my manager when I was designing the Pen, was now head of the sales division. I heard later that the head of the development department had telephoned Mr. Sakurai and suggested that if the production people were having so much difficulty, perhaps we should give them a little more leeway on the dimensions. Apparently Mr. Sakurai agreed. I was summoned to see the person we knew as the godfather of development, and I spent two hours arguing vehemently about the need to make the camera smaller and lighter. I was convinced that that was what he wanted to hear. So the head of development telephoned Mr. Sakurai again and told him that the dimensions couldn't be changed after all!
This sequence of events seems to have started when the head of production in the factory reported that it would be extremely difficult to reduce the weight to 700 grams, which was about half the weight of a Nikon SLR, and asked if a compromise might be possible. After all, this was an SLR. By the time you add exchangeable lenses and all the system components, the photographer's bag would weigh six or seven kilograms. Photographers carry several cameras, which is no problem if you're in a car, but it's a lot of weight to hang from your shoulder. So we needed to halve not only the weight of the camera, but also the weight of all the system components. Then the bag would weigh three kilograms instead of six. That's a big difference. We wanted to reduce the size and weight of the body, and our target was a 600 gram body.
Once we booked a hotel in the French countryside as the venue for a party to show our appreciation to photographers. The hotel was on the Cóte d'Azur on the Mediterranean coast. We invited photographers from around the world as a way of showing our appreciation. The only invited guest who didn't attend was Don McCullin, a famous news photographer.
You've probably heard of Robert Capa. Well, Don McCullin followed in his footsteps and has gained such a reputation that an exhibition of 200 20th century photographs would need to include at least a dozen by him. On the evening of the first day of the party, he telephoned to apologize. He said he would be unable to make it that day because he had been stranded at Heathrow Airport because of a strike.
The next day he telephoned again. When we asked him where he was, he said he was telephoning from his home in London. He had made it as far as Paris but had been unable to buy a ticket to the Cóte d'Azur because all the planes were full. He had considered staying in Paris but was unable to find a room and had been forced to return home. On the evening of the third day, we all returned exhausted from a day's cruising to see Don McCullin arriving at the hotel. We told him that only one day remained, but he said he didn't care about that because there was something that he wanted to tell us.
He told us that he had been able to capture his amazing battlefield photographs in Vietnam and various other war zones because his camera was light. He wanted to thank us for that. My eyes filled with tears when he told us that the OM SLRs had lifted a weight from the shoulders of photographers everywhere. He really understood the significance of our efforts to create compact, lightweight cameras. That was a wonderful moment.
It was around this time that I started to design the OM2.
When I started to work on the OM, the world was already moving toward electronic shutters. Because Olympus was mainly producing Pen cameras, it had fallen behind in the development of SLRs.
I spoke earlier about the relocation of capital city functions to underutilized areas. At that time electronic shutter technology was still in its infancy, and there was a large electromagnet in the city center. Of course, this was the result of huge efforts, and I admire that hard work. However, it would have been easier to relocate functions to underutilized areas. With the OM-1 and OM-2, we all had this idea from the outset.
To understand what an electronic shutter does, let us imagine that we have a bucket here. The shutter opens, and light pours in and accumulates in the bucket. When the bucket is full, the shutter closes. The bucket is a capacitor, which converts light into electricity and stores it while the shutter is open. SLRs also collect light, but they can't pour into a bucket because the mirror flips up, causing everything to go dark. Really the shutter should remain open while light is being collected, but no light reaches the finder, which remains dark. So the amount of brightness before it goes dark is stored in the bucket, which is emptied after it becomes dark. This is known as a memory formula. You store the light before looking through the finder. The amount of energy is calculated, and the result is used to close the shutter. Pentax was the first to develop this system.
I thought that we could create an ideal electronic shutter by placing the bucket in a location that would be exposed to light when the mirror was raised for shooting. The brightness before the stored memory formula changed would be measured. This is easy to understand if you think about a strobe. Light is produced only in the instant in which the image is recorded, so you can't use a memory formula that measures the brightness before shooting. I wondered if there were any SLRs that could measure brightness even in strobe light, and I found that there were none on the market, so I decided to make one.
Where does the light go after the mirror is raised? It hits the film. I was trying to collect the light that hits the film directly into the bucket. It seems obvious now. If you use the light that is hitting the film, that's direct photometry. However, I was told that I would need to adjust all of the light hitting the film because film comes in various colors. So I collected film from around the world, and after examining perhaps 50 different types I realized that film is indeed produced in a wide variety of colors. However, when I measured the reflected light, the variation was only 0.1EV, which gave me confidence that we could succeed.
The opportunity to create a camera that was not available on the market was perfectly in tune with my philosophy. With direct photometry it was possible to measure even strobe light, and you can be as close to the subject as you like. With autofocus systems, you can't take close-up shots at 30 centimeters. The new system worked fine at 30 centimeters and even 10 centimeters. When we announced it at Photokina, there were around 300 journalists from around the world at the venue.
Before I went up to speak, there were about a dozen strobes lined up, and shutters were clicking. The strobes on both sides all flashed at the same time. The resulting images were clear all the way to the far background. This would have seemed impossible in those days, and everyone was impressed.
So I was always making odd cameras. This must have made life difficult for the sales people. When you're selling something that didn't previously exist, you need to start promoting it from scratch. Your message will reach some people and miss others. Some people will just say, “It's small. So what?”
I'm sure that the design staffs were annoyed by my unreasonable demand to reduce the size and weight by half. But repetitions of this process eventually led to the creation of something that photographers want, something that I wanted. If something is not available to buy, you have to make it yourself. If your way is obstructed by the technology barrier and the barrier of accepted wisdom, you have to find ways to break through those barriers. I believe that our efforts to do this have brought Olympus to the present stage in its history.
I would now like to talk about the XA. We launched the OM-1 in 1972 and the OM-2 in 1975. A product that was not previously available on the market can be seen as innovative, and in some senses it might be regarded as odd. The creation of a new product involves considerable effort by a wide range of people. The backbone users are not the ones who opt for a particular brand, but rather the people who choose a product because they really understand its characteristics.
It's because of those people that our cameras continue to command high prices, even though they have become classics. Someone once asked me why the prices have stayed high even though the products are now classic cameras. I have never designed a classic camera! With the benefit of hindsight, all I can say is that the cameras turned out well.
When we introduced the OM-2, a new manager was appointed to lead the Marketing and Planning Division. The new manager had started out working with microscopes. He was an expert on statistics and would carefully follow trends in numerical data.
The Pen was selling well, and Olympus had a market share of over 60% for half-size cameras and 36-37% for 35mm compact cameras. That's why we were able to introduce the OM. Because the entire company was focused on developing SLRs, we couldn't introduce many new products, and our market share had fallen from 36-37% to around 35%. Normally a change on this scale would not be noticed, but that manager decided that we needed to do something about the trend. He told me that I should develop something. He had previously worked in development, and we were chatting about those times one day when he said that he knew I was busy with SLRs and asked if it would be acceptable for the sales people to plan a new product.
It is normal for Marketing people to plan new products, and I was indeed very busy, so I told him to go ahead. So the Marketing and Planning Division manager issued a directive to sales offices in Japan and overseas. It said that there was a crisis in the 35mm compact camera segment, and that our market share was in danger of slipping below 35%. The directive said that Olympus needed everyone to help plan a new product. About two weeks later I received a telephone call from the manager of the Osaka Branch. He told me that they had all discussed the problem but had been unable to come up with any ideas. “You're our only hope,” he said. “Haven't you got any ideas?” There was a similar call from the Tokyo Branch around the same time. I knew the inside story, and so tongue in cheek I told him that I was too busy to help, and that they should carry on by themselves. A month later I was summoned by the Marketing and Planning Division manager It seems that they had all struggled to produce ideas but they were stuck. “Can't you help us?” he asked.
Market share is extremely important to a company, and I was impressed that Olympus was taking decisive action in response to a 2 percent decline in its share. I was extremely busy. We had completed the SLR camera, but we had announced that there would be around 285 system components, and we had completed only half of that number.
It was at this time that they asked me to revive our fortunes in the 35mm compact camera market. Previously I had been the one to lead the charge carrying the banner, but I was also anxious to train my successors, and so I formed a team of 10 development engineers. I gave them a year to develop any 35mm compact camera that they wanted. While they were doing that I worked on the OM. Then one day they told me that they had finished and wanted me to look at their work. They had written about 100 ideas on a blackboard. I didn't want them to make 100 cameras, so I told them to reduce the number. A few months later they had whittled the list down to 10. “It's still too many,” I told them. “There should be no more three.”
At the end of the year they said they were ready for me to look at their idea. I had made a point of not involving myself in their day-to-day efforts, and they had developed solidarity as a team. Autofocus technology had only just been introduced, and the Juspin Konica had only recently gone on sale. They told me that they had bought one, tried it, and found that it was very good. They were eager to make a camera like that.
That was against my philosophy. The camera was already on sale and we would have simply become involved in a price war. I told them that if they liked that camera I'd buy them one each. That would only cost about 200,000 yen, compared with the hundreds of millions of yen needed for developing a new model.
That was not a satisfactory end to a year's work. I told them to go back to the 100 ideas that they had originally produced. They had crossed out ideas to reduce the number, and their decisions had been guided by accepted wisdom. When they collected some of the better ideas from the rejected ones, a different response emerged. However, the results were still not quite in tune with my thinking, and so I was forced to make a choice and carry the banner once again.
The OM was conceived as an SLR that could be used to photograph anything from outer space to bacteria, but there are situations in which you can't use an OM. For example, you can't go to a wedding as the guest of honor and carry an OM over the shoulder of your tuxedo.
If you don't have a camera, you can't take photographs. I had realized that even if a camera could shoot everything from outer space to bacteria, users couldn't take any pictures if they didn't have the camera with them. In fact this was something that had been bothering me for many years.
When I was doing my factory training, I spent two years at our plant in Suwa. Suwa is a spa town, and there was a public spa next to my lodgings. In winter the place was so cold that towels would freeze solid, with the temperature reaching minus 23 degrees Celsius. Even with my window and sliding doors closed, the temperature in my room would also drop to minus 23, and a vase that my mother had sent me from Shikoku shattered when the water in it froze. Because it was so cold, the public spa was a popular playground for children. They would call in on their way home from school, and the water always became very dirty. So instead of taking a bath after work, I used to go in the morning before work.
On one such morning the driver of a long-distance truck decided to take a bath while passing through the spa town. He parked his truck in front of the public spa and went in just as I was finishing my bath. As I left I could hear a strange crackling noise. Sparks from the engine had started a fire, and because it was a gasoline-fueled vehicle the flames spread quickly. The driver came running out stark naked, but it was already too late. There was no water, so we couldn't fight the fire. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but of course nobody takes their camera to the bath, so unfortunately I missed the opportunity.
Even if your camera can capture shots of outer space or bacteria, it's useless if you don't have it with you. I was determined to make a camera that people could carry with them everywhere. Nowadays we can take pictures with our mobile phones. I wanted to create something like that, but there were still no digital cameras in those days. For years I thought about designing a camera that you could carry with you always. I thought about it for a decade while I was working on the Pen and OM.
While the OM was small, it was an SLR, and there was a limit to how far we could reduce the size. We needed to create an even smaller camera. As I mentioned earlier, however, we faced resistance from Kodak when we developed the half-size Pen. The use of 35mm film was an absolute requirement in those days, and I was determined to create a smaller camera within that constraint.
If you take a 35mm screen and add a cassette to hold the film on both sides, you can reduce the width to a minimum of 105 millimeters. However, you can't reduce the height to less than 60-65 millimeters because of the finder. When it comes to thickness, the lens is the problem. There were folding cameras with collapsible lens, and I thought that this might be the answer, but I didn't want to move the lens much because there were so many interactions with the shutter and the mechanisms. So I decided to use a short lens that would be fixed in place. I began by setting the dimensions for my small camera, which I thought should be about 100-105 millimeters wide, 60-65 millimeters high and 30 millimeters thick, though I was prepared to allow a little leeway in these dimensions.
Once I had reached that stage, the task of making such a camera became a major challenge. A camera was a treasured possession, and people kept them in cases. It was expensive to make cases. We first used a soft case for the Pen. It was extremely popular, and Sony asked if it could use the Olympus soft case for its portable radios. However, something designed to be carried everywhere had to fit in a pocket, the smallest of which is the breast pocket of a shirt. My idea was to make a camera small enough to fit in that pocket. I wanted to make it as small as today's mobile telephones. And that idea led me to get rid of the case. It would be a caseless camera.
If I may skip forward a little, despite my youth I was invited to be the guest of honor at the wedding ceremony of the son of a camera case manufacturer, whose business was located in Tokyo's Koto Ward. The wedding was held two days after we had announced the caseless camera. There were about 650 guests, including many members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. When it was my turn to speak, I told them that we had launched a caseless camera two days before, and I explained with great regret that we would no longer be using cases.
Another problem was the lens cap. The cap protects the lens from scratching and fingerprints, but it's a troublesome component. People lose them. The new camera had to be caseless, capless and small enough to fit in a shirt breast pocket. These were the conditions for my concept of a camera that could be carried everywhere. Our determination to meet these conditions led to the XA. It certainly didn't need a case, and in that sense it was an extremely unusual camera.
Today anyone can take a photograph simply by pushing a button, but back then such a comment would have been greeted with anger. The ease with which we can take photographs is the result of relentless efforts by engineers throughout the world to apply complex technology to the task of automating camera functions. In the early days, you had to study photography so that you could set the shutter aperture and choose the right type of film. Before you could take a picture, you had to consult tables of standard exposure settings for the different seasons and day and night conditions. Photography required considerable study, and for this reason camera users were mostly males.
When the Pen era started, 98 percent of camera purchasers were males and only 2 percent were females. After the introduction of the Pen EE, the percentage of female buyers surged to 33 percent, yet most camera owners were still males. While there are exceptions, in general males are interested in mechanical things. They like gadgets. So camera designers had to create cameras with lots of mechanical features. This was the era in which I was trying to create a caseless camera, one with no mechanical features visible on its exterior. However, it was the cameras with the mechanical features that sold well. This was the barrier of accepted wisdom.
I thought about the problem. Though the camera would be capless, that didn't mean there was no cap. I decided to make the camera capless and caseless by providing a barrier that would slide across the lens horizontally. If I made the caseless feature the starting point for the design, the result would be a camera that didn't look like a camera. The same was true of the capless concept. I was trying to create a camera that would appeal to males, but I was also trying to break through that barrier. I decided to make the camera look like a camera when the slide was open, even if it looked less camera-like with the slide closed. Males would like the camera with the slide open, females with it closed. This interesting concept became reality with the XA. I am talking from a design perspective here. The main concept for the XA was that users should be able to take it with them everywhere so that they were always ready to seize photographic opportunities.
The key concept of Sony's Walkman audio system was to enjoy music outdoors, in contrast with the perception of music as something to be enjoyed indoors. It first appeared on the market around the same time as the XA. The concept was also similar. Both products were designed to be taken everywhere, one to provide audio, the other to record images.
The XA became the first camera to win a Good Design Grand Prize. As you may know, the Good Design Grand Awards are sponsored by the Japan Industrial Design Promotion Organization. There are tens of thousands of applications every year, from which around one thousand products are selected for Good Design Awards. Awards have been given for large items, such as buildings and vehicles, and for small items, ranging from fountain pens to household products. The best of these receive prestigious Good Design Grand Prizes, and the XA was the first camera to earn this distinction. The path to this achievement was a difficult one in many ways. There were many problems at the planning stage, and at the manufacturing stage.
One of those problems related to the use of plastic. There was intense interest in plastic at that time, but if you made a product from plastic it looked cheap. I am an engineer, but I also know a little about design, and I wanted to use plastic in a way that exploited the characteristics of the material without making the camera look cheap. So we used plastic for the cover that replaced the cap.
My history is part of the history of Olympus. Since its early beginnings, Olympus has had a corporate culture characterized by the creation of innovative products. However, I have not inherited Olympus DNA; nor have I been taught about this culture. I never studied it. I simply love to take photographs, and if I needed something for that purpose, I would do my utmost to create it.
Yet when I think about it, perhaps I am an Olympus person. Many of the cameras that I have developed have been unique Olympus-style products. And there's a reason for that. I was simply trying to make things that you couldn't buy anywhere.
When the Monkey King boasted that he could fly to the end of the Earth, the Buddha told him to go. And indeed he flew to the end of the Earth and returned after signing his name on the wall. When he got back, the Buddha smiled and showed him the inside of his finger. “Here is your signature,” he said. If you think about it, everything is in the hand of the Buddha.
I love cameras, and I have willfully proclaimed my determination to create cameras that have never existed before. Yet when I think about it now, it seems to be that everything was in the hand of Olympus. I'm sure that Olympus will continue to create unique cameras, and that those who love Olympus cameras will remain loyal users. Olympus cameras are a little unusual, but I hope that you will continue to understand and support those cameras.
Text and copyright: Maitani and Olympus Web Strategy Group