It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when Nikon and Canon weren’t direct competitors. In fact, Canon’s legacy of commercial cameras began in 1936 with the Hansa Canon, a collaboration between what would become two market leaders.
As with most cameras, the Hansa Canon’s evolution began with the production of a prototype. The Kwanon prototype included a 50mm f/3.5 interchangeable Nikkor lens. The lens mount and optical system of the viewfinder and rangefinder mechanism were produced by Nippon Kogaku Kogyo, which years later would become Nikon Corporation. The main body of the Kwanon, including the focal-plane shutter and the rangefinder cover were produced by Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory, which also assembled the camera, but that’s a longer story…
Goro Yoshida, born in 1900, moved to Tokyo after high school where he apprenticed for a company repairing and remodelling motion picture cameras and projectors. Tinkering with machines and instruments was a part of his job. As Yoshida told the story in his later years, it struck him that he could make a Japanese rangefinder camera after he’d disassembled a Leica to find that it was made of things that could be obtained in Japan.
“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.”
With his brother-in-law, Uchida Saburo and financial backer Mitarai Takeshi, Yoshida established the Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory—which would later become Canon Inc—in 1933 with the aim of developing an affordable, but high quality rangefinder to rival the market leaders. Their first camera, the Kwanon, was modelled on the Leica Yoshida had carefully deconstructed. Named Kwanon after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, the prototype’s logo depicted the thousand-arm Goddess.
In 1935, the company registered the name Canon as a trademark and moved toward full-scale production with the Hansa Canon. Meaning ‘precision’ in Latin, Canon highlighted the company’s objective of producing modern high quality cameras.