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What follows is an overview of the development of Olympus from its inception to the end of the 50's when production of the Six ended. The detailed specifications of the various Six cameras are to be found in the section 'models'.

The Olympus history started in 1919 when the company registered as Takachiho Seisakusho was created, although the name Olympus only appeared in 1921 as a trade name. Besides the commercial reasons behind the adoption of a Western name, there is an obvious mythology correlation between both names:
Takachiho is where the descendants of the sun goddess are known to have made their descent on earth. As the story goes, the corruption of Japan was a major concern for Takamagahara, a country in heaven where the sun goddess Amaterasu-omikami commissioned her grandson Ninigi-no-mikoto to settle the problems. Thus, Ninigi-no-mikoto invited millions of gods to descend upon earth with him. The party of gods arrived at the peak of Takachiho, but the thick fog that covered the area stopped them from going anywhere. Then a local man walked by and suggested to Ninigi-no-mikoto, who carried some ears of rice, to pluck out the grains and sprinkle them onto the area. When Ninigi-no-mikoto did as he was told, the fog cleared. The event gave Takachiho its name which Chinese characters imply the meaning of 'thousand rice ears at the peak'.
Mount Olympus, standing at about 2917 metres (9570 feet), is located in northern Greece on the boundary between Thessaly and Macedonia, near the Aegean Sea. The summit of Mount Olympus was considered in Greek mythology to be the home of the twelve most important gods and goddesses. It is written that Zeus talks to the gods from 'the topmost peak of many-ridged Olympus,' and only a little later he says that if he willed he could hang the earth and sea from a pinnacle of Olympus, clearly not a mountain as such. Not heaven either since, according to the writer Homer, Poseidon says that he rules the sea, Hades the dead, Zeus the heavens, but Olympus is common to all three. Academic debate aside, the name Olympus is associated with a mountain and so the correlation between geography and mythology is obvious.
Personally, I have always found the name Olympus easier to pronounce and more distinguished than Nikon, Canon, Minolta. But then again, you may argue that I have always been biased ;-)

From 1920 to 1936, Olympus produced microscopes and optical instruments (still the primary activity of the company today). The first camera to bear the Olympus name was the 1936 Semi-Olympus with a Zuiko lens produced at the Shibuya factory. Note that only the lens was made by Olympus, whose 1938 Semi-Olympus II is considered to be the first true Olympus product after the homemade Koho shutter (itself based on the Ikonta Prontor II) replaced the Compur shutter. And it can be argued that the first 100% Olympus made product only appeared with the Chrome Six since production of the Zuiko lens for the previous Six series still relied on getting the glass from Schott in Germany. In line with the product naming scheme, it is worth noting that Koho means 'High Mountain'.
The first Zuiko lens was a 75mm F4.5, 4-element-3-group Tessar-type lens, modeled on the famous Zeiss Tessar and assembled on a Praud body and with a Compur shutter. Although the Olympus official story on the meaning of the name Zuiko is that of a simple abbreviation, the best explanation I have heard about all aspects of the word and its meaning comes from Kazuya Matsumoto:
"Zuiko is an abbreviation of 'Mizuho Kogaku-kenkyujo' (Mizuho Optics Lab.). The Chinese characters for 'Mizu' and 'Ko' turn into 'Zui' and 'Ko' when they are put together. In addition, the spelling and pronunciation of 'Zuiko' is identical to another Japanese word (perhaps of Chinese origin) meaning 'light showing a good omen' or 'light announcing auspicious events'." An example of Zuiko in Japanese is given below. Note that only the Katakana (phonetics) version is used in Japan - a shame as the Kanji writing would shed more light on the official term as meant by the Olympus management team in 1936.
 
 
 
Kanji
 
Katakana
 

With the exception of the Standard developed in 1937 but never commercialised, the next significant camera was the Olympus Six, named as such because of its 6x6 folding format taking 120 film rolls. Launched in 1939, its production stopped between 1942 and 1945 when the factory was reassigned to manufacturing weaponry optics until its destruction in an air raid on May 26. Also in 1942, the name Takachiho Seisakusho was officially changed into Takachiho Kogaku Kogyo Co., Ltd.
Production resumed under US military occupation in the new Suwa factory and the Six started shipping again in Spring 1946. As the Koho shutter plant had been destroyed, Olympus called on Copal to supply a replacement and kept using Copal shutters for the late Six and all Chromes thereafter. The Six became the Chrome Six in 1948 when the manufacturing process incorporated a die-cast body to replace the steel pressed plates. Thus, was born the first 'Chrome' of a range spanning six models for ten variations, Chrome I, II, III A & B, IV A & B, V A & B and RII A & B, the later introduced in 1955.
Note that all Six and Chrome ever produced were engraved Olympus Six and given a serial number but none had the mention 'Chrome' nor any series identification mark. The Roman numerals and the letters A & B for the type of lens are just used to make identification easier. They also appear in the instructions leaflets and promotional literature.

The Takachiho Kogaku Kogyo Co., Ltd became Olympus Optical Co., Ltd in 1949, the trade name still used by the company today.
Around the same time the Six was produced, Olympus had three other camera models, the Flex launched in 1952, the Wide from 1955 and the 35 appearing in 1958. Of course, only the Six is the object of this web site. Production was nowhere near modern figures but the Six itself shipped at up to 5,000 units a month. This means that, as the camera is not that rare (or at least, some models), collecting Sixes doesn't have to entail re-mortgaging your house! A quality Six is not going to be given away but is cheap enough to have fun with 120 rolls and good enough to give decent pictures. All in all, a great Olympus camera to put in your collection.
Since restarting the production in occupied Japan in 1948, as mentioned on the leatherette of many Sixes, Olympus has kept manufacturing cameras, amongst which the Pen and OM systems are the pinnacle of their respective range, i.e. half-frame and manual single lens reflex. Those wanting to learn more about these two camera systems can find relevant URLs in the 'links' section.
Today, the company is widely regarded as one of the best exponents of the digital age, with its E10 camera breaking new moulds in terms of resolution and gathering many plaudits. No doubt it will be considered the Chrome Six of the digital revolution in another fifty years time.

To finish this historic prelude, let's make one last remark. No one can argue that the Six and Chrome Six were ground breaking when released. However, we can already notice aspects of the direction Olympus would take for its cameras. Namely, well built, small but resistent, and technology advanced where possible. Looking at my recently CLAed Chrome IIIB, this camera still feels springy and well assembled. Granted, the technology employed is positively rustic compared with my OM-4Ti, but there is a good sense of solidity, almost 'German-like' precision. As for technology, the Chrome V was the first Japanese camera to implement a so-called 'adjusting graduator', a not very satisfying translated term meaning a correcting scale for focus displacement, whilst the Flex was itself the first Japanese TLR with F2.8 viewing and taking lens.
I know, I am biased and will admit to that. But grab hold of a Chrome and you will see what I mean about satisfying feeling. If you are here reading this, you are probably half-way there already. So read on the models section to identify that Six you are thinking of buying :-)