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Nikon One: The First Nikon 

Introduced in 1948, the Nikon I was Nippon Kogaku's first 35mm camera, as well as their first rangefinder. Today,  over a half a century later, the Nikon I is among the most sought after and rarest collectible cameras of any type, not just Nikon.   The times were very different when this camera was made.  In a heavily bombed and American military occupied post war Japan, it was on this camera Nippon Kogaku management bet the future of their company on, and won.    Not knowing if their new camera would be a success or failure, the venerable optical firm of Nippon Kogaku called their new camera "the Nikon."    As time went by, the firm was renamed to match the camera.   Nikon rangefinder collecting is very popular, second only to Leica collecting.    Due to Nikon popularity and many Nikon shooters eventually becoming Nikon collectors, the Nikon I is one of the most sought after of all collectible cameras.  

The Nikon I design is a curious mix of the best pre-war German 35mm rangefinder designs, Leica and Contax.  Nippon Kogaku designers generally combined the best of both systems, with one unfortunate crucial exception - the lens mount.

The 1936 Zeiss Contax and the 1948 Nikon 1, both mounting 50/2 collapsible lenses. Do you notice any similarities?

 

Nikon I serial numbers started at 6091 and went to about 609759.  The first 21 cameras are believed to be used for test purposes.    By this accounting, number 60952 would be the 31st production Nikon camera,  produced in May 1948.    Although the numbers would seem to indicate over 750 Nikon I's,  it is actually much rarer according to Robert Rotoloni, founder of the Nikon Historical Society.  He believes the number of Nikon I's actually delivered is closer to 400,  due to 90 Nikon I's not passing quality control, and about 200 unsold I's being converted to the later Nikon M.  The film format change was mandated  to accommodate standard American format Kodak Kodachrome slides so Nikon cameras would be eligible for export to the US. 

 

50/2 Nikkor Collapsible # 60921 is reported on camera number 60941, lens number 60969 on camera number 609111, and lens number 60990 on camera 60926.  Shown above on camera 60952 is lens number 70868, the 69th lens of this second numerical sequence.   This seemingly random intermixing of the 609xx and 708xxx lenses over only 111 cameras suggests both numerical 50/2 collapsible lens 609xx and 708xxx lens batches may have been completed very early in Nikon I production, and then mounted randomly to whatever camera was ready for delivery.  The very early dome Nikon lens cap is extremely difficult to find, actually much rarer than the camera since they were lost so easily.  The top pic shows the lens collapsed back into the body for more compact carrying (but not picture taking).  Incidentally, the domed cap above was only made for the earlier Nikon One 50/2 and possibly 50/3.5 lenses.    I don't know when the change occurred, but by 609500 or so, the flat lens cap already seems to be in use. 

The original Nikon I dome lens cap and the Nikon I's yellow instruction booklet are both VERY rare today, even though an unknown number of Nikon I instruction books were supplied with later unsynced Nikon M's.   So far as I am aware, there is only one version of the Nikon I instruction book in English.

The interior film chambers of early Nikon I's are crudely finished.  The finish is uneven and hand painted.   There is no bottom cover plate to protect the shutter tension adjustments.   60952 has only one set of film rails, instead of the two sets of two rails like later cameras.   The film sprockets are smaller and on a smaller diameter spool than later cameras.  As you can see, the original curtain on this camera is in rather bad shape.  The curtain material for the Nikon I and later Nikon M was not of the best quality.

Note the removable film spool -- like the Zeiss Contax.   

 

Note the very crude hand done finishing inside the back and  film chamber.   Unlike later Nikon I's, there is no bottom shutter assembly cover.   

Not ALL Nikon I's have the top plate serial number stamped on the back!

Many Nikon fans believe all Nikon I's, M's and S's have matching serial number engraved on the top plate and stamped into the detachable film back.  Surprisingly, this is NOT TRUE.   More research needs to be done, but at least cameras  60952 and 60926 do NOT have the top plate serial  number stamped into the back.   Apparently  an unknown number of very early I's were produced before Nippon Kogaku decided to standardize numbering with matching top plate and back numbers.  

Instead of "60952" on the back,  the number "23" is stamped on at least 3 locations: the camera back, inside the film chamber, and the bottom of the crudely finished shutter assembly.     It would seem an unknown number of VERY early Nikon I's used a different numbering system.  Curiously, camera 60926 has similar markings  with the number "2" at the same locations.   What does this mean?    Without detailed factory documentation of these very early Nikons, collectors are left pondering the many possibilities. 

 

The MADE IN OCCUPIED JAPAN engraving indicated the American post war occupation of Japan, which ended in September 1951.    The large MIOJ engraving shown above was switched to much smaller MIOJ lettering on the baseplate, possibly within the first 100 cameras.  Eventually during Nikon M production, the MIOJ engraving was moved to an imprint on the back leather, where it was much harder to see. 

  

As incredibly rare as the Nikon One is, the 24x32 format Variframe 35/50/85/135 Viewfinder made for the One is actually rarer -- in my experience anyway.  The viewfinder frame was selected by rotating the viewfinder barrel to the desired frame.  Parallax was adjusted by rotating the lever on the rear base of the viewfinder to the focused distance.  Notice this 24x32 viewfinder is marked in feet.  Nippon Kogaku was already thinking about export sales.  A small chain attached the rangefinder magnifier to the viewfinder.  The magnifier could be left on the viewfinder for storage, attached to the camera for magnifying the RF image.   Later Variframe variations were made as late as Nikon S2 production, without the 24x32 designation.   Most Variframe viewfinders are found today without the chain and magnifier.

 


IF the Nikon I used the Zeiss Contax mount, why isn't it fully compatible with Zeiss Contax Lenses?

The Nikon rangefinder lens mount, introduced on the Nikon I, LOOKS like the German Zeiss Contax lens mount.  Nikon Rangefinder lenses will mount on the Contax, and vice-versa.  How could Japanese camera manufacturers copy patented German Leica and Zeiss camera mounts in the first place?  The short story is that in a post WWII environment, the winning Allies allowed it in the interest of getting bombed out economies up and running again.  This is a very complicated issue about which books have been written,  but I don't care to get more into it here. 

If it quacks, it might NOT be a duck.   Looks aren't everything after all.  Much to the irritation of photographers, Nikon rangefinder lenses mounted on Contax, or Contax lenses mounted on Nikon rangefinders, are NOT FULLY COMPATIBLE.    Sometimes the pics can be out of focus.  Hmm.  Both the internal mount and external mount lenses fit just fine.  The lens  back focus is the same.   Yet the lenses may not focus accurately.  

How could Nikon copy the Contax lens mount and NOT get it right?   Like many questions, the answer depends  upon how you interpret the data.  For me, comically the fly in Nikon's soup is Canon -- a situation that continues to this day with their intense competition!   Nippon Kogaku had never built a 35mm camera before, but before the war and up to early 1948 Nippon Kogaku did supply  50/3.5 or  50/4.5 Nikkors for the Canon Hansa, S, J, NS, JS, S-1, J-II, S-11.  The Canon is considered a modified Leica copy, thereby using the Leica standard for "50 mm" normal lenses --- 51.6mm.  The Zeiss Contax uses a nominal focal length of 52.3 mm for its "50 mm" normal lenses.    In one of Nikon's biggest foul-ups ever, Nippon Kogaku decided to use the 50/3.5 Nikkor already developed for the Canon, for the new Nikon camera.   In 1948 there was no guarantee the new Nikon camera would be a success.  Perhaps due to lack of space, or investment capital, the decision was made to use the Leica (by way of Canon)  inspired 51.6mm as the Nikon I's normal lens focal length.  If the new Nikon camera  went belly up, Nippon Kogaku  could  still remount Nikon normal lenses to Leica screw mount.   For most of the 1950's Nippon Kogaku continue to hedge its bets by producing Leica screw mount lenses along side the Nikon mount lenses.    A better long term solution was using the Zeiss Contax standard 52.3mm focal length for normal lenses on the new Nikon camera -- this would have allowed full lens interchangeability between Nikon and Contax.  

OK, the differences between 51.6mm and 52.3mm, so what?  Well, remember the Zeiss Contax uses a focusing helical IN THE CAMERA body for normal lenses, so the Nikon I used the same type of helical. Alas, what happens when you put a 51.6mm lens in a focusing mount intended for a 52.3mm lens?  While infinity is in focus providing the back focus is the same, the other focused distances are slightly out of  focus on the film plane.  This is especially noticeable at full aperture and close up -- where the difference can not be carried by depth of field.   

The solution? Just change the Nikon helical so the 51.6 mm lens can be focused to 3.5 feet, and adjust the rangefinder mechanism accordingly.  

The problem created by the "solution"  is that ALL Nikon rangefinder lenses have to mate to the internal normal lens helical in order to focus the rangefinder.  In other words, changing the Nikon rangefinder normal lens to make it compatible with the made for Canon Leica mount normals, also forced helical changes for ALL other Nikon rangefinder lenses.   For 35 and shorter lenses, the difference is so small as to normally be considered inconsequential, allowing for the interchangeability of Nikon and Contax wide angles.  With 50mm and longer lenses, the difference begins to add up so that wide open and close up, Nikon and Contax lenses are not compatible. But if you shoot at medium and longer distances, or at medium or smaller apertures, depth of field will usually take care of the focus error.  As focal length increases, the problem increases, to the point that Nikon made special 85/2, 105/2.5, and 135/3.5 lenses for Contax, so marked on the lens barrel with a "C."

OK, if I wrote this carefully, you probably now understand the reason for the lens incompatibility problems. The big question is WHY would Nikon intentionally make the lenses of their new camera incompatible with the lenses of the mount they have just copied.  It would seem to make no sense at all.  If you read official Nikon literature, the WHY is usually lightly glossed over.  I would imagine the reason are a big embarrassment now.     It would seem Nippon Kogaku management had little confidence of the future of their new Nikon.   One possibility is that they hedged their bets by making Nikon camera lenses more easily Leica compatible,  so that if the Nikon camera died, Nippon Kogaku would more easily have Leica mount lens sales to fall back on.    Another possibility is that economic savings of not having two standard 50mm focal length lenses (51.6 vs.  52.3)  was placed  ahead of long term Nikon customer interest and satisfaction in having their lenses 100% compatible with Zeiss Contax lenses. 

Nikon I's are about five times rarer today due to American occupying forces not liking the 24x32 film format.   Without the change of film format,  the Nikon I and unsynced M would merge into one camera with a production of about 2000 cameras, instead of about 400 Nikon I's and 1591  unsynced Nikon M's.     Ironically Nikon seems to have gotten into film format problems by copying Minolta's 24x32 format from Minolta's first 35mm camera, the 1947 Original Minolta A, a Leica screw mount copy.    Minolta's founder Mr. Tashima is generally credited with inventing the 24x32mm "Nippon size" film format.   Minolta's Leica screw mount rangefinders proved  far more popular than Nikon rangefinder during the American occupation.  Approximately 4000 Nikon rangefinders were "Made In Occupied Japan " (Nikon I,  unsynced and synced M, very early S).    Over 20,000 MIOJ Minolta Rangefinders were produced (Minolta A, B, C, D, E, and some F's).  About the first 3,000 Minolta  A and B's used Mr. Tashima's 24x32 film format.    Unlike Nikon, Minolta did not export to the US during the MIOJ period. 

Nippon Kogaku (name later changed to Nikon), had two basic problems with the Nikon I: the 24x32 film format, and the close but incompatible with Zeiss Contax, Nikon lens mount.   Ironically, both mis-steps came about by following in the footsteps of Canon in lens design and Minolta in film format choice.    While early Nikon's miscues may seem hilarious to Canon or Minolta fans, in 1948 both Minolta and Canon were established 35mm camera companies.    In contrast, Nippon Kogaku had a non-existent  35mm camera track record, and faced a very un-certain camera manufacturing future.    For all of that, Nikon collectors got the last laugh.   Even the pre-war original Canon Hansa sells for much less than a Nikon I, while MIOJ Minoltas sell at a small fraction of similar MIOJ Nikons due to lack of demand. 

 

The black S3 2000 and the Nikon I of 1948.

Nikon reintroduced Nikon Rangefinders with the Nikon S3 of 2000 and the Nikon SP of 2005!

 

When the Nikon I was produced in 1948, no one in their right mind would have predicted its place in 35mm history, or its  popularity with collectors today.  It would seem Nippon Kogaku's first 35 turned out pretty well. 

 


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Revised: October 10, 2007 Copyright  2002-2007  Stephen Gandy. All rights reserved.    This means you may NOT copy and re-use the text or the pictures in ANY other internet or printed publication of ANY kind.  Information in this document is subject to change without notice.  Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.