In the build-up to Photokina, Canon is celebrating its 80th anniversary. The seed was planted in 1934 when a company called Seiki-Kogaku Kenkyusho placed an advert for a camera called the Kwanon in the Asahi Camera magazine.

The company, whose name translates as Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory, was formed by movie camera repairman Goro Yoshida, who wanted to develop the first Japanese 35mm rangefinder camera in a world where European brands like Leica and Contax, dominated.

To see how these cameras worked he reportedly took apart a Leica Model II, and Canon's history pages quote him as saying 'I just disassembled the camera without any specific plan, but simply to take a look at each part. I found there were no special items like diamonds inside the camera. The parts were made from brass, aluminum, iron and rubber. I was surprised that when these inexpensive materials were put together into a camera, it demanded an exorbitant price. This made me angry'.

Goro Yoshida, one of the founders of the company that became Canon, and the engineer behind the Kwanon prototypes.
The first advert for the Kwanon camera, that appeared in Asahi Camera magazine in June 1934.

Yoshida formed Seiki-Kogaku Kenkyusho with his brother-in-law Saburo Uchida and Takeo Maeda, and the company worked from a room in the Rappongi district of Tokyo. The advert for the Kwanon appeared in June 1934, after three different prototypes had been made or just designed – no actual product ever appeared, and the Kwanon was never brought to market.

Yoshida called the camera Kwanon after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy Kwannon, and the lens was named Kasyapa after one of Buddha's disciples, Mahakasyapa.

The apartment block in Tokyo's Roppongi district from which the Seiki-Kogaku Kenkyusho company operated.
The logo that adorned the Kwanon camera, showing the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kwannon.

Yoshida left the company shortly after the adverts appeared, as a result of a disagreement about the future of the business, and the company went on to produce the Hansa Canon in 1936 – a camera created through collaboration with a military optical equipment company called Nippon Kogaku Kogyo (which became Nikon). The Hansa Canon used a Nikkor 50mm f/3.5 lens, and a lens mount, rangefinder mechanism and viewfinder optical system made by the company that is today its greatest rival in the camera business.

The Hansa Canon, that was announced in 1936 after a collaboration with Nippon Kogaku Kogyo, the company that became Nikon.
A timeline of products Canon considers significant that it has released in the 80 years since the Kwanon.

Canon counts August 10 1937 as the official founding of the company, when Precision Optical Industry Co Ltd was formed as a joint-stock company. The word 'Canon' wasn't used in the company name until 15th September 1947 when it became Canon Camera Co Ltd – to help American servicemen to identify the cameras with the company that made them.

Canon camera history fact sheet (PDF download)

Press release:

Canon celebrates 80th anniversary of Kwanon, the company's first camera

London, 2 September, 2014 – Canon Europe, leader in digital imaging solutions, today announced that its parent company Canon Inc. is commemorating the 80th anniversary of Canon's first camera, the Kwanon. Marking Japan's first 35mm focal-plane-shutter camera, the Kwanon was produced in prototype form in 1934, the culmination of the dreams of engineers who wanted to catch up with Europe, the leading presence in the camera industry at the time.

The engineers who created the camera decided to name it after Kwannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, hoping the deity would share her benevolence as they pursued their dream to produce the world's finest camera. The camera's lens, called Kasyapa—after Mahakasyapa, a disciple of Buddha—also took its name from Buddhism. Additionally, the top portion of the camera body featured an engraving depicting the thousand-armed Kwannon.

In 1936, two years after the birth of the Kwanon and following much trial and error, Canon launched the Hansa Canon,  its first commercial 35mm focal-plane-shutter camera, thus embarking on the Company's history as a camera manufacturer.

In 1959, Canon introduced its first single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, the Canonflex, followed in 1961 by the Canonet, an immensely popular rangefinder camera that took the market by storm, selling out an entire week's worth of inventory in a mere two hours. Following these successes, the Company continued to lead the industry with a range of popular camera models, such as the F-1, a top-of-the-line 35mm SLR camera introduced in 1971, and the AE-1, introduced in 1976, which was the world's first SLR camera equipped with a built-in microcomputer.

In 1987, following continued technological innovation, Canon launched EOS, the world's first AF (autofocus) SLR camera to employ a fully electronic mount system. In 1995, EOS marked its entry into the digital era and the line-up continues evolving today. In 2012, the Company released the Cinema EOS System, a line-up of professional digital cinematography cameras and lenses realised through the culmination of various technological innovations centred on optical technologies developed since the Company's founding. Since its introduction, the Cinema EOS System has contributed to expanding the horizons of visual expression.

Masaya Maeda, Managing Director and Chief Executive, Image Communication Products Operations at Canon Inc., comments: "Over the 80 years since the birth of the Kwanon camera prototype, Canon has continuously innovated to fulfil the Company's never-ending ambition to create the world's finest cameras. Leveraging the technologies and know-how it has acquired over its history, Canon will continue contributing to the development of the photographic and video imaging culture through its technologies and products designed to satisfy the expectations of our customers."