Hamburg, 09/03/2019 | Story | Company From the cosmos to bacteria

How did the first camera in Olympus' legendary OM series develop? That is what the second episode of the six-part series about the history of Olympus spanning from now until the end of this anniversary year is about.

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It took five years to develop the OM-1, which was introduced in 1972 as the smallest and lightest single-lens reflex (SLR) camera and caused a worldwide sensation. In this article, we will follow its development story based on journals and interviews with Mr. Yoshihisa Maitani, who was in charge of design at the time.

Revolutionary new camera concept

After the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the entire Japanese economy experienced a period of stagnation, with the effects of economic depression also spilling heavily over into the camera business. Through increased exports, Olympus hoped to stabilize its business and become less dependent on domestic economic development.

At the time, rangefinder cameras were all the rage, as represented by Leica M3. In particular, the overseas export market showed a stronger indication that the business was moving swiftly toward the introduction of SLRs. Due to these camera trends, the sales department within Olympus began requesting the development of 35mm SLRs for export purposes.

Maitani had already started thinking about a completely new camera concept in 1956. Back then Olympus was in the final stages of preparation for the announcement of its new product, the PEN-F, at the Photokina, a German trade show for the photography, video, and imaging industries. Since a corresponding fee was required to exhibit, some executive members thought that microscopes and endoscopes should be presented together. Maitani’s answer to that was: “Then why not design several cameras that can simultaneously exhibit the full range of features as a general optical manufacture, encompassing both microscope and endoscope features? I shall design several camera systems that show a wide range of our expertise.” This was the origin of the development concept “From the cosmos to bacteria” for Olympus’ OM system.

Small, light and silent

Maitani realized that perhaps it would be better to start with a completely new development approach. He recalled a statement by Ihei Kimura, photographer and first director of the Japan Professional Society, that SLRs are "bulky, heavy and loud”.

In order to resolve these “three evils” of SLRs, Maitani needed to not only adopt revolutionary technologies.

“I promised myself that if I were to develop something, I would develop something that had not existed before.”

Maitani first tackled the development of the body. This was with the aim of achieving a compact-size and lightweight body so that users could actually feel the difference when using the camera. The target weight and volume were set at half that of Nikon’s SLR, which was the heaviest camera at the time, and with the aim of decreasing its dimensions by 30%. Furthermore, when thinking from the user’s perspective, Maitani wanted the operating panel to be large and easy-to-use. However, when he started to think about putting these ideas to practice, he faced a technological deadlock.


Inside OM-1

Whenever he had exhausted all possible options, Maitani made it a point to return to the origin, “From the cosmos to bacteria”, in order to decide what to do next. He described what had pushed him forward in the following manner:

“Whenever I faced a technological deadlock with the existing design and couldn’t find any solution, I utilized my own personal developmental method which involved ‘finding the nemesis’ of the issue. This, at times, led to ideas that looked at things from a different angle. In this manner, even if the hurdles I faced were so high that it made me lose spirit the more I felt eager to attempt to overcome them, which was a paradoxical feeling. I still haven’t figured out why; whether it was confidence, passion, or my attitude as a designer that could be considered my philosophy.”

Maitani was also blessed with superiors who respected his passion. “I believe it was all thanks to my superiors having faith in me and giving me the opportunities that allowed me to continue attempting to create a unique camera, something that would have been difficult for others to be so understanding about.”

Thinking across departments

In 1970, the first general OM-1 prototype was completed. The production of this prototype involved not just Olympus’s camera business unit, but also the Microscope Department. The entire workforce of Olympus became involved in the development of the OM-1 and the OM System, which included the lens and accessories.

OM system catalogue from 1976

For the development phase of the OM-1, using tools and production molds, the Olympus team were faced with a lot of obstacles, whether it was in examining processing methods that they had no experience in or dealing with material-related complications. Although the entire company was under immense pressure, Olympus remained committed to its goal of developing a cutting-edge SLR camera with the firm belief that it would become the market leader in this area in the future.

In May 1972, mass production of the OM-1 began, an ultra-compact SLR that eliminated the "three evils" of ordinary SLRs. A performance that had initially been considered impossible at the start of development.

In the following years, the OM series became a great success. For Maitani, the greatest recognition that deeply moved him was the gratitude of Don McCullin, a photojournalist working in conflict zones around the world: “I definitely wanted to meet Mr. Maitani and thank him personally. Thank you so much for liberating the shoulders of us photographers. Thanks to the lighter cameras, the scope of our activities has expanded. On behalf of all broadcast photographers across the globe, I wanted to thank you.”