The Current Issue
Nikon Owner Issue 17
HISTORY OF NIKON Part XIV by Gray Levett
The Nikoflex was a camera which never made it beyond the blueprint. Here in this magazine for the first time is the story of what might have been.
Regular readers of this column will be aware that over the past sixteen issues we have covered the range of early Nikon cameras, lenses and optical devices, Nikon rangefinder cameras, Nikon F and F2 reflex models as well as various special application models.
In this issue we move into an area that has received little or no attention, largely I think because of the lack of any concrete information. As you can see from the diagram illustrated on this page we have an unusual camera. It is the Nikoflex and it represents Nikon's very first attempt at a reflex camera!
To get a picture of how this model came about we must travel back in time to the 1940s. Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) was chosen by the Japanese military to be the major supplier of optical ordnance equipment. Nikon's growth expanded to 19 factories employing 23,000 people; so great was their growth that up until the end of the war, it exceeded pre-war production by nearly 95%!
However, after the surrender of Japan in August 1945, Nikon's situation underwent a radical change. They were left with one factory, Ohi in Shinagawa, and approximately 1,400 employees. The General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Allied Occupation Forces headed by General MacArthur issued an order to Nippon Kogaku permitting them to produce (in limited numbers) non-military items, like telescopes, microscopes, binoculars and surveying equipment.
At the time the prospects for Nippon Kogaku looked bleak. True, the war had ended, but Japan had to be rebuilt and the Japanese people barely had enough to eat. Who therefore would buy their products? Eventually there would be a need for surveying equipment, but a market for luxury optical products simply did not exist. The answer ironically proved to be with the very people who had conquered them - the allied occupation forces! After all, they were the only group in Japan with any money available to indulge in luxury goods as well as the necessities of life. It was to this market that Nippon Kogaku directed their efforts and began to manufacture products for the photographic market. The first camera put into commercial production was the Nikon Model I in March 1948. (Incidentally, Nikon's original design had been completed as early as September 1946.)
What we do know is that Nippon Kogaku's research produced a 6x6cm (2¼" x 2 ¼") TLR (Twin Lens Reflex), in fact, the Nikoflex TLR, and a 35mm, interchangeable lens, coupled rangefinder camera. The TLR was dropped and the design of the 35mm camera went into production emerging finally as the Nikon I.
Until about ten years ago I had no knowledge of this mythical TLR. Fortunately information finally came to light when I was presented with a copy of Seventy-Five Years of Nikon - the official history of the company that was produced for shareholders. It is a magnificent Japanese language book and a treasure trove of historical information on the company and its products from its beginnings in 1917 up to 1992. It was while studying this volume that I happened upon an image of the original blueprint for the Nikoflex TLR.
Unfortunately the blueprint cannot be reproduced here easily but we have done the next best thing. We contacted Donal Begley, the technical-drawing wizard who did the magnificent exploded diagram of the original Nikon F poster produced by photographer Tony Hurst.
Although our knowledge of this camera is meagre, we can see that the viewing lens was an 8cm f/2.8 View-Nikkor and the taking lens was an 8cm f/3.5 Nikkor-QC. It accepted 120 roll film for exposing twelve 6 x 6cm (2¼" X 2 ¼") photographs. Whether this blueprint ever made it from the page to a pre-production model we do not as yet know. One wonders what would have happened to the Nikon company had the organisation decide to proceed with the TLR rather than the 35mm rangefinder. If they had followed the medium-format film route, I doubt whether you would now be reading this article.