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the Semi-Olympus I - the Pen Series

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After breaking through the technology barrier,
you run into the barrier of accepted wisdom.
Leica's new M3 had a film advance mechanism operated by a lever instead of a knob. The frame counter would automatically revert to zero when you opened the cover. Today this seems obvious, but back then the mechanism was leading-edge. The rewind mechanism was also lever-operated. In fact the M3 was packed with new technology, including a bright frame range finder with a range that changed according to the lens you were using. Other camera manufacturers were desperately trying to catch up with the Leica M3.

Seminar
Human ingenuity is truly amazing. Olympus was also trying to improve its film advance mechanism. However, switching to a lever mechanism would have required replacing about 40 components. We couldn't afford the expense, so we opted for a rear-winding film advance system that had a similar feel to Leica's lever system. Our system consisted of a single plastic dial. One solution would require 50 changes, the other just one. And because the part was made of plastic, it was cheap. We abandoned the idea of a frame counter that would automatically revert to zero when the cover was opened.

During my training in the factory, I learned that frame counter mechanisms are quite complex. Sometimes they would wind forward two frames instead of one, while other times the film did not advance at all. The mechanism contained about 30 parts, and there were checks at each of the 36 manufacturing stages. Over and over again, Olympus invested huge amounts of money. There was a 36-tooth gear wheel, and above that a 35-tooth pressed gear wheel. These went round one tooth at a time, and because one wheel had 36 teeth and the other 35, there was a one-unit discrepancy. With pressed gears, you don't need to exert a lot of force. The cost is only 2 yen or thereabouts, and no testing is needed, since there can be no errors once the teeth have been processed. Anyway, because we had spent so much on the lens, we had to apply a lot of ingenuity to the other parts.

The Pen was gradually taking shape, but as we moved closer to our initial goal of creating a cheap camera, we encountered two barriers. The first was the technology barrier, the same barrier I hit when I wanted to photograph something but couldn't find a suitable camera. If something doesn't exist, there must be a reason. Perhaps it would be extremely expensive or technically impossible. Or maybe it couldn't be made sufficiently compact. If you want to meet these challenges, you have to break through the technology barrier. That's the first barrier.

Olympus Pen
Olympus Pen
I'm happy to report that we were somehow able to break through the technology barrier. Because I was a new designer working on a research problem, nobody complained, and I was able to design according to my ideas. Eventually I built a prototype. When Mr. Sakurai saw it, he immediately said “Let's manufacture it.” It's very unusual to look at the result of a new employee's training project and decide there and then to manufacture it. But Olympus has a culture in which people are able to act boldly. This same spirit of creativity allowed us to create cameras that could take photographs inside people's stomachs. That's why I like Olympus. You can be free of that endless process of debate about whether something will sell and how much it will cost.

So my prototype was about to go into production, and I was excited. But even though the decision to produce my camera had come from the very top, the factory manager refused to manufacture my “toy camera.” Half-size cameras didn't exist then, and sales executives told us that my camera wouldn't sell because there was no market for it. This was the second barrier. Accepted wisdom told us that the camera couldn't be made and wouldn't sell. Since our factory wouldn't make it, we decided to outsource production. That was how the Pen first came into being. And as soon as it went on sale, it became a best-seller.
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