The early days of Nikon's European digital imaging division

In January 2011, almost by accident, I came across the website of Alan Bartlett, who founded Nikon's European digital imaging division in 1988 - the same year as Nikon introduced their first filmless camera, the QV-1000C.

I sent him an e-mail, asking for general information about Nikon's early electronic cameras (Nikon SVC and QV-1000C) and wire transmitters (NT-1000A being Nikon's first such device). Very soon - and exceeding all my expectations - Alan sent the following account, which he has kindly agreed to share on NikonWeb.com. A few editorial comments are added for clarification. These are shown as [italic text inside brackets].

Alan is now running a marketing consultancy agency based in Oxford, England. You'll find his website at www.alanbartlett.co.

A new era

Text by Alan Bartlett

I started working with Nikon in 1984. My job was to market the new products that Nikon was just starting to roll out as a prelude to a new generation of digital cameras and business imaging products.

I built up the business in the UK and in 1988 was given the responsibility for marketing the products across all of Europe, Middle east and Africa. At that point we were known as the Electronic Imaging Division. By the time I left in 1994, EIE Division (called EIP division in Europe) had grown substantially in terms of people and turnover. Unfortunately, I destroyed all EIP literature I had after I left.

[Nikon's Electronic Imaging Division was later merged back into the photo division. More details below.]

NT-1000A

The first product I worked with was the NT-1000A telephoto transmitter which was first shown to the press at the media centre at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Actually the very first machine shown was an NT-1000, a model set up for Japanese (Kyodo Tsushinsha aka Kyodo Press) wirephone standards which were slightly different from the NT-1000A that used CCITT wirephoto standards). There was another version that used AP wirephoto standard that was intended for use in North America.

The very first NT-1000A used by a newspaper in the UK was purchased by The Sun for use by Arthur Edwards to cover Prince Charles and Princess Diana's visit to Italy in 1985. This was delivered in April two days before the Royal Tour began. I trained Arthur Edwards in a matter of hours just prior to him flying out to the start of the tour which was in Sardinia.

Kelvin McKenzie was the Sun's editor at the time and wanted to score against the Daily Mirror. At the time, the Sun was based in Bouverie Street just off Fleet Street. The purchase caused a dispute between the NGA [National Graphical Association - a British trade union] and the Sun proprietors which resulted in industrial action. After talks the NGA, whose members were responsible for the operation of the wirerooms, the paper agreed to pay the wiremen for each picture transmitted by Arthur Edwards.


Crazy future: British photographer John Rodgers using the NT-1000A in combination with Polaroid instant 35mm film for rapid news picture coverage. Rodgers ran the Fleet Street News Agency, a London based news agency. The machine shown was loaned to him by Alan Bartlett. Popular Science, March 1985.

Arthur Edwards was the first photographer in the UK ever to have transmitted pictures that were published in a UK newspaper. Until then, all pictures used by newspapers were sent by wiremen or from news agencies.

Arthur's pictures were sent directly from his hotel room in Sardinia, whereas all other press photographer's covering the tour had to travel to Rome to get their images sent by Reuters or AP from their Rome bureaus. As a result Arthur's images were received 6 hours ahead of the other newspapers and made the following day's editions with ease. No other UK paper had any comparable coverage.

As a result of this ALL UK national newspapers bought NT-1000As between 1985 to 1987. There were no exceptions - 100% market share which was an incredible result but was largely as a a highly competitive newspaper market and a result of an industry hungry to adopt new technology. In contrast, only 2 NT-1000s were sold in North America.

Having been stuffed by the Sun on the Italian Royal Visit, the second newspaper group to buy the machine was the Mirror Group for use by the Daily Mirror and the London Daily News who bought 12 units. They first used a machine to cover the Royal Tour of Australia and competed head to head with the Sun. I remember negotiating this deal with Robert Maxwell!

[Maxwell was a Czechoslovakian-born British media proprietor who rose from poverty to build an extensive publishing empire. Died in 1991.]

Following this, the Daily Mail bought 10 machines and the other Murdoch titles bought further machines. Other non-press purchasers included the MOD [Ministry of Defence], who bought 3 machines for use by the Army and the Royal Navy for PR and damage control use. Michael Hesseltine, the then Minister for Defence, saw the NT-1000A and took the decision to buy them.

In total, 55 NT-1000As were sold in the UK, far more than in any other country, with the exception of Japan where a slightly higher number were sold.

[2 or 3 NT-1000A transmitters were sold in Norway.]

NT-2000
Nikon NT-2000 film transmitter

Mainly as a result of the launch of Eddie Shah's Today in 1986, the UK news market was rapidly converting to colour. Nikon followed up the NT-1000A with a complex and expensive colour wirephoto transmitter and digital scanner called the NT-2000. Since these were late to the market (Hasselblad and Leaf had started to deliver colour versions of their wirephoto transmitters) and the machine was 40k (twice the price of rivals) not surprisingly none were sold in the UK.

[Eddie Shah was the founder of the then technologically-advanced UK newspaper Today in 1986.]

NT-3000
Nikon NT-3000 film transmitter

Nikon subsequently designed and launched the NT-3000, a brilliantly capable colour machine which was designed in close co-operation with Reuters and Kyodo Press and was intended to compete against the Leaf and Dixel Hasselblad's transmitter. This machine was first demonstrated as a prototype in the media centre at the winter Olympics in Albertville in 1992.

Reuters initially placed orders for 100 but unfortunately by the time this was in production in 1993, you could buy an Apple Laptop, a modem a desktop scanners and a copy of Photoshop for under half the price and receive images on a PC or Mac based picture desk. Reuters and others cancelled orders. To my knowledge 2 or 3 NT-3000s were sold off cheaply to Reuters.

[I bought the NT-3000 pictured here for cheap from a US seller a few years ago. Needless to say, these things are utterly useless today.]

QV-1000C
Nikon QV-1000C

Regarding the QV-1000, a monochrome Still Video Camera which was only sold as a package with the QV-1010T Transmitter, no units were ever actually sold in the UK, although it was evaluated by several UK newspapers. It was first used in the UK to cover the Lockerbie disaster in 1988, although the images taken were never used in print.

[Same story in Norway: The QV-1000C was evaluated by several newspapers, but never actually sold.]

It can however rightly claim to be the first electronic still camera ever to record an image which was printed in a UK newspaper (the Evening Standard). The picture (of Margaret Thatcher opening the Harmsworth Printing plant in Docklands in 1989) was taken in Docklands, transmitted via a mobile phone (expensively!!) to the Standard's offices in Kensington where it was used in the live production system and then sent back to Harmsworth's plant assembled into a page for printing into the newspaper, a copy of which was handed to Margaret Thatcher as she came to the end of the tour.

As it was based on the analogue NTSC video format, the image resolution was only acceptable for reproduction in newsprint at small sizes. Canon and Kodak both launched similar products around that time which also suffered from similar issues.

One prototype QV-1000 camera that was used by us in Europe for demonstration, was stolen at an exhibition in Milan, Italy and was never recovered. We always laughed about the thief going to a camera store and asking for film for it!!

I remember being invited to give a presentation about the future of photography to a group of Norwegian (and some Swedish) photographers sometime in 1988. I brought along a QV-1000C Still Video camera which I think was the first time such a camera had ever been shown in the Nordic countries. I recall I was very busy at the time with no time to prepare a big presentation. In order to get me to fly over, Rolf [Rolf Petterson of Interfoto, the Norwegian Nikon distributor at the time] told me that it was a very informal gathering to just to a select few. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention that he'd invited about 400 people and it was taking place in a large theatre. I had no slides prepared so just talked and invited the audience to come close and play with the camera. I think it worked just because it was such an important product which everyone wanted to see, so nobody cared too much about what I was saying.

BTW, I saw a QV-1000C SVC on Nikon's stand at Focus on Photography two years ago in the UK in their 'history of Nikon' display. It was labelled as an 'early digital camera'. I had to remind one of the guys that it wasn't a digital camera! Electronic yes, but digital no.


Divided Europe: The death strip between west and east Berlin, 1987. Photos by Jarle Aasland.


East German border guards armed with AK-47 assault rifles.

QV-1000C through the Iron Curtain

Another story about the QV-1000C you might be interested in was the time we took the camera to a photographic exhibition in Prague in 1988, I think. I know the Berlin Wall was still very much in place, and Czechoslovakia, as it was then, was a very unwelcoming, austere and authoritarian place.

As I liked to live dangerously, I thought it would be fun to drive there so alone I set off across Europe, through West Germany, then East Germany to Czechoslovakia. All went well, I had the correct papers and had few problems until I reached a small Czechoslovakian border post at about 02:00 in the early morning.

In my best German, our only common language, which actually wasn't a good choice (for historic reasons!!), I tried to explain what the QV-1000C was. They saw it was described on the paperwork as a camera and demanded to see the film it used!! Electronic still photography was a very hard concept for them to grasp so in the end to avoid arrest, I had to unpack the system and demonstrate it to them. It was and still remains the most bizarre product demonstration I have ever given.

At 02:30 in the morning at a lonely Warsaw Pact border crossing, I was taking pictures of a group of 5 heavy-duty Czech border guards all proudly holding their AK-47s, lined up outside their post and showing them the pictures on the tiny player screen. In the end, I had to give them a mini-floppy disk each as a 'sweetener' so they would allow me through. I still sometimes think about those border guards with their floppy disks and nothing to see their pictures on.

I guess it was worth it as I managed to sell an NT-1000A to CTK, the Czech Press Agency, on that trip.

Pioneering spirit

In an article at Nikon's website, Mr. Kenji Toyoda, the former planning manager of Nikon's Electronic Imaging Division, wrote about the NT-1000A: "..only a certain quantity was shipped to northern Europe owing to the effort of sales staff of European subsidiary." Meaning Alan Bartlett and his team. Alan's comment:

Nokia

I was interested in Kenji Toyoda's remark. He was a really great guy who was always supportive of what we were trying to do and ensured the design and production teams made the products our customers wanted. Unfortunately, the EIP division was broken up in about 1997 and all the staff were reassigned to other teams.

When I left Nikon in 1994, it was very clear then that the marketplace was undergoing a rapid change. Technological innovation, deregulation and a more entrepreneurial business climate, were some of many factors.

Nikon was suddenly competing with many more companies than it had ever done so previously. No longer was Nikon competing with familiar photo brands such as Canon, Hasselblad, Pentax, Olympus, Fuji, etc. It suddenly found itself competing against hundreds of competitors from all corners of the world with innovative digital-based imaging products, and many of which were software based. It never considered Nokia, now the world's largest camera maker, to ever be a competitor.

This change happened far more rapidly than Nikon Japan had ever anticipated and the cost of keeping pace placed a huge burden of R&D costs on the relatively small EIE [Electronic Imaging] division. Several products never found their way to the market as the market had moved so rapidly by the time they were scheduled for production.

Photoshop? No thanks.

Tragically, in my view, Nikon saw itself as a hardware supplier and did not see any reason to extend the Nikon brand into software or services. In 1988, at the MacWorld show, the Nikon team was approached by two brothers who offered them the rights to market an imaging software application. The brothers were Thomas and John Knoll. The application was called Photoshop.

Whilst there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the product from the Nikon European and US marketing teams to market the software under the Nikon brand, the Japanese HQ decided Nikon was not a software company and they could not see a market for it so turned down the opportunity. The rest as they say is history. (Just for the record, Kodak as well as several other photographic giants, turned Photoshop down too.)

[Adobe decided to purchase the license to distribute Photoshop in September 1988. Photoshop 1.0 for Macintosh was released in 1990.]

In the end, Nikon's EIE [Electronic Imaging] division was merged back into the photo division which of course made economic sense. Sadly, in my view, much of the original pioneering spirit and vision seemed to get lost when that happened. Nikon's business was refocused on broader consumer markets and much production was moved to Thailand and China.

Nikon product names


   Nikon Dicks. Chick magnet?

By 1990, a true-digital SLR which used a 2/3-in. 1.3MP CCD was under development in Japan, a prototype version of which was first shown to press users at the IFRA exhibition in 1993. The camera wasn't carrying any badges when we showed it as the name hadn't been decided prior to the show. This evolved to become the E2/E2s which was launched as I was leaving Nikon.

[The same camera - an E-series prototype - was also showcased at the 1993 Newspaper Exposition (Nexpo) in New Orleans with a D1 label. I've seen the same D1 label in a Japanese prototype description. This D1 labeled prototype should not be confused with the "real" D1 model announced in June 1999.]

Talking of product names, the Japanese tend to stay safe when it comes to product names and prefer to use letter and number combinations because they're easy to avoid trademark conflicts and embarrassing words in foreign language hence products called NT-1000A, QV-1000C, etc.

We had recommended that Nikon didn't call the next generation, E2 replacement camera, the D1X as this would be laughed at by British photographers because it sound like 'dicks'! They didn't listen to us though.

[According to Kenji Toyoda, QV stands for Quick Vision «..if I remember correctly». And there's little doubt that NT is an acronym for "Nikon Transmitter"]

Heroes of the press

I was very privileged to have worked with newspaper photographers and to have seen the industry undergo probably the most significant technology change that occurred in the 20th century.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to my fellow pioneers, the heroes who were the press photographers such as: Arthur Edwards, Kent Gavin, Mike Maloney, Ian Stewart, Peter Jay, Paul Armiger, Martin Cleaver, Nick Skinner, Peter Cook, Monte Fresco, Dave Ashdown, Roger Parker, Harry Page, John Voos, Brian Harris, Brynn Colton, Steve Woods, et al. who all put their reputations on the line to make this technology work.

And we shouldn't forget the picture editors, notably Alun John, Len Greener, Paul Buttle, Eamon McCabe and Ron Morgan, and the pioneering wire room managers who battled against the odds to introduce the new technology in particular Bob Avery (Mirror Group) and Gerry Parnall (Daily Mail).

If you have a great story from the childhood of electronic photography, feel free to contact me directly, by sending an e-mail to webmaster@ nikonweb. com (remove spaces). Thank you.

Further reading
2005-2013 Jarle Aasland - webmaster @ nikonweb . com (remove spaces)