Canon is known today for its printers, copiers, and cameras. It began in 1930 as a small company called Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory, started by Goro Yoshida and his brother-in-law, Saburo Uchida, to produce a 35-milimeter rangefinder camera—a camera with an adjustable focusing mechanism that could photograph far-away objects in sharp focus.
The company’s first camera was called the “Kwanon,” after the Japanese Bodhisattva Guan Yin, whose Japanese name was pronounced “Kannon” or “Kwannon.” Although the company marketed three versions of this camera and are said to have produced ten, none were ever known to have sold.
One of the biggest reasons for this is that while the company had produced a camera, it had not manufactured a lens. The company partnered with another Japanese company, Japan Optical Industries—later known as Nikon—that was developing a lens under the name “Nikkor.”
The Kwanon was first advertised in the June 1934 issue of Asahi Camera, one of Japan’s top photography magazines then and today. The ad read, “The ‘I’ Class submarine. The ’92-Type’ airplane. The Kwanon camera. All world leaders.” The I-Class submarine and the 92-Type airplane were both cutting-edge developments that the Japanese government was touting as proof of Japan’s technical superiority.
Eventually, Uchida decided to change the company’s product name from “Kwanon” to “Canon,” which meant “precision” in Latin—a desirable trait in cameras. Thus, in 1936, the first camera released by Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory was the Hansa Canon. Three years later, the company began to manufacture its own lenses in-house.
In 1940, with the onset of World War II, the Japanese army came to several companies with a request to manufacture an X-ray camera. These companies turned to Precision Optical Instruments. Towards the end of 1940, the company had innovated and produced the world’s first X-ray cameras.
In 1945, part of the company’s manufacturing facilities were destroyed in Allied bombings—and the company ceased operations briefly after the end of the war. When Allied forces occupied the country, however, the company president noticed that they were interested in Japanese cameras. He decided there was plenty of opportunity for the company to succeed, and he decided to reopen the company and invite back its former workers.
In 1947, the company’s name was changed to Canon Camera Company, partly to appeal to the Allied forces and partly as a result of its first public offering on the Japanese stock exchange. Western customers found the name “Canon” more appealing and easy to remember, and the script used to write the name was unique among Japanese companies at the time. Because of this, the name stood out on the stock exchange and in the market.
In the 1970’s, a rivalry had begun to develop between former partners Canon and Nikon as to who produced the better professional camera. The Canon F1 and the Nikon F2 both had devotees and their own system of photography. Eventually, Nikon began to win out with newspaper photographers and Canon cemented its hold on the wildlife photography market.
In 1976, Canon introduced the first camera with a microcomputer embedded inside—the Canon AE-1. “AE” stood for “Automatic Exposure.” This camera allowed amateur photographers to take professional-quality pictures without paying high prices for professional cameras. With this innovation and the AF35M auto-focus compact camera developed in 1979, Canon became the brand of choice for amateur photographers.
Canon began with cameras and eventually expanded into personal copying machines, color copy machines, and then inkjet and laser printers. Today, while it’s a household name for printers as well as cameras, the company makes most of its revenue from all-in-one machines, digital and analog copiers and scanners typically used in offices. It also manufactures flat-panel televisions in collaboration with Toshiba.
One of Canon’s important printer innovations was the bubble-jet printer. According to company lore, a technician accidentally touched the tip of a hot solder gun to a needle filled with ink. The heat caused the ink to spray out of the needle. This fortunate accident led to the development of the first bubble-jet printers in 1981. Canon also played an integral role in developing laser printer technology and liquid crystal displays.
Canon is a groundbreaking company, responsible for driving innovation in camera and printer technology throughout the 20th century. With its long history of invention and its reputation in the market, chances are it will continue to be influential in the 21st.