Monday, May 7, 2012


In 1982 it was reported that Nikon was planning to assemble cameras in the US.  Not only their less expensive, amateur equipment, but also their top of the line, professional cameras.  This was considered a very bold step.  Even though nothing came of it, it did prove the farsightedness of E. Leitz Wetzlar, to establish a North American branch in 1952.

Immediately after the war it became apparent that it would take the German industry several years to be able to produce enough goods to start exporting again.  On the other hand, the majority of the German population was hardly in a position to buy Leica cameras.  The Leitz family had to look for a solution.  It appeared to have come when Mr. Walter Kluck joined the Ernst Leitz Co.

Walter Kluck

Before Walter Kluck started to work for Leitz, he had considered opening a manufacturing plant in France, together with a friend.  When presenting this idea to the Leitz family, it was generally agreed upon that manufacturing Leicas in France would open the export market a lot sooner.  The decision was made to start the operation in the Saar territory which was under French occupation at that time.  A lot of regulations had to be overcome, however, and in order to speed things up, some of the machinery necessary was taken out of Wetzlar by night and transported to the new location.  So it was by some dubious means that this new venture got its start.

Initially Leitz coated only lenses of prewar production and later even manufactured complete lenses and mechanical parts for the Bolex motion picture cameras.  Finally even cameras were made.  They had the famous “Monte en Saare” engravings, cameras with a considerable collector's value today.

Things in Europe didn't look too good, however.  The cold war began to heighten and the Leitz family began making plans to avoid losing the entire operation once again to war.  The solution seemed to be an entirely different region.  Suggestions like North Africa, South America, Spain and Ireland came up, but eventually someone mentioned North America, particularly Canada.  After a lot of considerations, Canada was finally chosen as the most logical place.  After all, North America was the largest export market.  Another reason for going to Canada instead of the US at the time was that the name Leitz was still under alien property control in the US and Leitz would not have been able to use their own name in this country.  It was also the case that the American immigration laws at the time were rather tight and it would have taken too long to get entry permission for the number of people necessary to start such a venture.  Thus Canada was the best choice.

Right from the beginning it was decided to look for a location not larger than 30 or 40,000 people.  In 1951 Leitz finally narrowed the choice to three places, Granby in Quebec, Smith Falls, which is near Ottawa and, of course Midland, Ontario.  Smith Falls was quickly eliminated from the list because the name was too difficult to pronounce in German or Spanish as well as a number of other languages.  Another consideration was the fact that Midland had the same number of letters was Wetzlar.  This enabled the insertion of the Midland name in all of the Leitz trademarks without the necessity of any changes.  Before the war a shipyard had operated in Midland and a lot of the population had found employment there.  But it had been decided to close the yard at the end of the war.  A lot of people were out of work and since there were no other towns nearby that could have offered jobs, the people in Midland were very eager to get Leitz to come to their town.  So Midland was the choice.

ELCAN Midland Ontario

A brick from the Leitz plant in Wetzlar was fitted into
the wall at the main entrance to the Midland plant. 

But other obstacles had to be overcome.  One was that Leitz needed permission from the German government because something like this had never been done before.  Leitz was actually the first company to take such a step.  It was also necessary to establish a program that would allow some quick sales right at the beginning because at the time Leitz was allowed to bring only $50,000 into the country and they had to make sure that they would not run out of money before new revenues started to come in.

Unfortunately, the new facilities were not quite ready for operation when the “Leica people” arrived.  To avoid losing precious time, an assembly facility was temporarily set up in the Midland Ice Arena.  Under the leadership of Walter Kluck, the first lens components were finished after only one week and the first completed Leica lenses and cameras were ready after only four weeks.

Soon after moving into the new facilities they started not only to assemble but to actually manufacture part as well.  After only three years of operation the Midland design department was established.  Initially it dealt only with mechanical designs, but after borrowing an optical designer from Wetzlar, optical design was also taken up.  This designer had a very good reputation and it was planned to “loan” him to Midland for only six months.  He never made it back to Wetzlar and his skills were primarily responsible for establishing Midland as one of the foremost lens design departments in the entire world.  The gentleman's name was Professor Walter Mandler.  His crowning achievement was the design of the 50mm f/1 Noctilux.  The design department became so successful that at the time most of the Leica lenses were designed in Midland rather than in Wetzlar.

Early computer installation at ELCAN

Besides the Leica program, Ernst Leitz Canad (ELC) became involved with the production of optical equipment for other companies, such as Hughes Aircraft, RCS and Picker X-ray.  All told, there were about 100 companies that did business with Leitz.  Besides the civilian market, ELC was also heavily involved in manufacturing for the US Defense Department, primarily the US army but also the Navy.  The research done for those branches has greatly helped the development of civilian products as well.  This is because the requirements of the armed forces are always pushing towards the limits of optical design capabilities, resulting often in the best possible instruments to be developed.  One such cast-off to the civilian market was the 180mm f/3.4 Apo Telyt R.

ELCAN Picker x-ray lenses

One of the most unusual military developments was an underwater camera system which Leitz developed for the US Navy.  It primarily consisted of a complete set of lenses for underwater work, not only for 35mm cameras but also for medium format, 16mm motion picture and TV cameras.  These were rather unique lenses because they were not part of a camera that was simply put into a water tight housing.  Instead the lenses were designed to be exposed to the water with their front element.  The usual way of using under water housings for conventional cameras incorporates lenses that are designed to work in air.  When designing such lenses, Leitz even takes the refractive index of air into consideration.

ELCAN under water housing for Leica M camreas

ELCAN under water housing for motion picture and video cameras

ELCAN under water lens system with water contact front lens element

The Leitz under water system instead was designed according to the refractive index of water.  As a matter of fact, since this system was to be used primarily in salt water, it was the refractive index of salt water that was used in the design of these lenses.  However, not all oceans have the same salinity.  So Leitz went one step further and took the refractive index of the salinity of the various oceans into consideration.  This was possible with an interchangeable front element of their water contact lenses.  This overall design actually considers the water as an integral lens element of the entire system.   To avoid the need to test these lenses in the various oceans all over the world, Leitz built a large water tank that could be flooded with water of the appropriate salinity.

The correction of these lenses is so good that, when water is clear enough, there is no way of telling that the pictures were taken under water.  Leitz was the first company to suggest such a design.
What is even more amazing is the fact that the thick water contact front element is so strong that the lenses can be used in the greatest ocean depths without any problems at all, including the deepest part on earth, the 36,200 feet deep Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench.

In the middle of the 1970s ELC decided to look into the manufacture of cameras as well.  Until then the whole operation had been dependent on selling their wares to others.  They had been compared to a tire company supplying tires to car manufacturers.  ELC's success was entirely dependent upon the successes of the companies they supplied.  It was decided that the manufacture of cameras would add a great new dimension to the Canadian Leitz operation.  After Wetzlar had given its blessing and given 100% support to this venture, all the tooling for the M4 cameras was moved to Midland and a great number of specialists from Wetzlar helped to get this venture off the ground.  The first camera of this new venture was the M4-2.  Basically identical to the old M4, it was modified to accept a motor winder which greatly enhanced the versatility of the camera.  Soon additional development of this camera resulted in the M4-P with the added versatility of a 28mm and 75mm viewing frame and a motor winder capable of running continuously at the rate of three frames per second.

One little known fact is that in 1970 Ernst Leitz Canada was awarded the design and manufacturing contract for the new 70mm IMAX projection system and in 1983 Ernst Leitz Canada began work with Panavision for their state of the art cinematographic lenses.  These are just two examples of the many designs and manufacture they did for outside companies, both for civilian and military use.

ELCAN Panavision lenses

Thus Midland had developed into a fully independent camera and lens manufacturer.  Their name Ernst Leitz Canada and their trade mark ELCAN have earned the highest reputation throughout the world and it was only a matter of time until additional new and exciting developments from this branch of Leitz would make the news.

Lens coating machine

Camera assembly

EROS IV optical transfer analyzer

ELCAN mechanical department

When Leitz decided to build the manufacturing plant in Midland there was no doubt that it should operate and manufacture at the same high standards that the world had grown accustomed to with the products from Wetzlar.  Thus it came as no surprise to me on my first visit to Midland that the interior was very much like that in Wetzlar.  Although the buildings were not anywhere near as large as the main plant in Wetzlar, the interior of the actual work areas was almost identical.  The relatively stark interior immediately showed a no frills, but all business attitude.  Quality control was as tight as in Wetzlar.  Everywhere, regardless of what work was being performed, there were people doing checks and rechecks.  Virtually all workbenches had some sort of testing instrument on them.  The whole place had a rather unhurried atmosphere.  The workers were under no time pressure at all.  Everyone could take the time necessary to do things right.  This was further enhanced by the total absence of assembly lines.  All work was done on individual workbenches.

The same was the case in the lens grinding department.  A lot of the work was performed by machines, but I saw at least one person busy grinding a lens element by hand.  It is a known fact that nothing can replace hand grinding when ultimate precision is of the essence and Leitz was still doing it.

While there were obviously a lot of people from the Midland area employed there. It was very obvious that there still was a large German contingent, easily recognized by the many German accents that could be heard in almost all conversations.

1982 marked the 30th anniversary of the Midland operation.  It had established itself as one of the foremost optical design companies in the world and Leitz would not have been at that time what they were without the branch in Midland.

In 1990 Hughes Aircraft Co. purchased Ernst Leitz Canada. The company expanded its operations as Hughes Leitz Optical Technologies.  During the period from 1997 to 1999 Raytheon acquired the optical business units of Texas Instruments and Hughes Aircraft Co. Midland and Richardson, Texas.  The units were merged to form ELCAN Optical Technologies.  From 2000 to 2002 ELCAN Optical Technologies underwent an aggressive marketing and technology development program and focused its combined experience to serve telecommunications, defense, commercial and industrial markets.  In 2003 ELCAN integrated with Raytheon's microelectronics facility in Malaga, Spain. Established in 1992, this advanced electronics manufacturing plant expanded ELCAN's capabilities with complete EMS operations, electro optical integration and better access to European customers.  The same year ELCAN launched SpecterIR™, the world's first uncooled infrared rifle scope focused on Homeland Security and low cost military applications.  In 2004 ELCAN launched PhantomIR™, a novel uncooled infrared binoculars also focused on Homeland Security and military applications.  In 2005 Elcan became the world's largest manufacturer of military electronic rifle scopes and released its first consumer rifle scope: DigitalHunter™. The world's first fully electronic rifle sighting system designed for sportsmen, DigitalHunter™ is a quantum leap in sporting optics technology, eclipsing the traditional glass-and-metal design of conventional rifle scopes.

Today Elcan's total capabilities include manufacturing in the fields of medical, electronic, defense and security, sighting systems, and contract manufacturing.

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  1. A colleague linked me to your website. Thank you for the information.
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  2. Great photo of the machine shop from the 70's. That's where i worked and i know most of these people, and some in the other photos too. Thanks.

  3. Wow. Those photos brought back memories. The EROS IV optical transfer analyzer was my "workbench" for 2 years in the mid 1980s. A great place to work.