Asahi Optical Corporation

The Japanese company Asahi Optical Corporation produces cameras under the Pentax brand name. It came to international prominence as a camera manufacturer in the 1950s, when Japanese companies began to challenge the dominance of European manufacturers in the 35mm rangefinder and single-lens reflex (SLR) camera sectors. Asahi developed a reputation for innovation and was responsible for a number of camera industry firsts. As well as producing Pentax cameras, lenses, and accessories, Asahi also manufactures eyeglass lenses, binoculars, printers, scanners, and endoscopes.

The company was formed in 1919 as the Asahi Optical Joint Stock Company and began to manufacture lenses for use in cameras, binoculars, and other optical instruments. In 1939, the company moved into the manufacture of aerial cameras for military use. After World War II, Asahi began to develop cameras for the consumer market. In 1952, Asahi launched the Asahiflex I camera, the first Japanese 35mm SLR camera. At this time, most SLR cameras suffered from a problem known as “mirror blackout:” the angled mirror behind the lens, which reflects the image to the viewfinder, is slow to retract when the shutter opens, thus blocking the path between the lens and the film. In 1954, Asahi solved this problem by fitting the Asahiflex II with an instant-return mirror. The first camera produced under the Pentax brand name appeared in 1957. The name was derived from the elision of the words “pentaprism,” or five-sided prism, and “reflex,” because the innovative feature of the Pentax camera was the incorporation of the pentaprism in the viewfinder, which made it possible for the viewfinder to be set vertically, providing a more natural viewing position.

Mass production of Pentax cameras began in 1959, reflecting the growing popularity of Japanese SLR cameras. The next major advance came with the introduction of the Pentax Spotmatic camera in 1964. This featured a photoelectric cell positioned behind the lens, which meant that the light reading was as accurate as possible. This arrangement, known as “through the lens” (TTL) metering, became standard in SLR cameras. TTL metering was taken a step further in the Pentax ES SLR camera of 1971, which introduced automatic exposure control by incorporating an electronic shutter that was programmed to select the exposure time according to the light reading. Accelerating sales meant that by 1971, Asahi had sold a total of three million SLR cameras since 1952, with a third of total sales coming in the last two years.

Asahi turned its attention to developing smaller, lightweight cameras. The Pentax MX SLR camera of 1976 was the world’s smallest and lightest SLR camera to date. Another variant of the MX model, the ME, was the first camera that operated wholly by automatic exposure, with no manual override. Even at its most compact, the 35mm SLR camera was still heavy and bulky in comparison to the pocket-size Instamatic cameras, pioneered by Eastman Kodak in the 1960s. Asahi’s solution was to create an SLR camera that used the same compact 110 film cartridges as the Instamatics. The Pentax System 10 SLR camera, launched in 1978, was compact and convenient, but also had the superior functionality provided by interchangeable lenses and numerous accessories. Meanwhile other companies were working on another lightweight format—the non-SLR 35mm compact camera. Asahi entered this field in 1982, when it introduced the Pentax Sport 35 camera. This camera also featured the innovative auto-focus lens technology introduced in the Pentax ME-F SLR camera of 1980. Asahi also became the first camera company to achieve total sales of 10 million SLR cameras in 1980.

Asahi continued to be a pioneer in the automation of camera functions. The Pentax Super Program SLR camera, introduced in 1983, offered the user a choice of six types of exposure control, including the use of auto flash. Two years later, the Pentax A3000 SLR camera provided fully automatic operation, with the addition of automatic film loading and winding and film-speed sensing. In 1986, Asahi improved the flexibility of the fixed-lens 35mm compact camera by marketing the world’s first compact 35mm camera with a zoom lens, the Pentax IQZoom camera. Since then, Asahi has extended the range of the compact zoom lens, culminating in 1998 with the launch of the Pentax IQZoom 200 camera, with a 48 mm to 200 mm zoom lens, which is still the longest zoom lens on a compact camera. Meanwhile, the first digital Pentax camera, the EI-C90, came on the market in 1996, followed in 1997 by the first Pentax APS (Advanced Photographic System) camera, the efina. As Asahi was not a partner in the consortium that developed APS, it played to its strengths by concentrating on applying its compact zoom lens technology to APS.