Leica First Invented Autofocus but Didn’t See Its Value

Did you know that Leica was actually the company that first invented autofocus? Between 1960 and 1973 the company patented a number of autofocus technologies, and then showed off the technology at photokina in 1976 and 1978. However, the head honchos of the company believed that their customers knew how to focus and preferred focusing themselves, so they decided to sell the patent rights to Minolta.

Late to Digital, Leica Slow to Refocus (via Foto Actualidad)

Image credit: Minolta Maxxum 7000-Mirror Detail by Capt Kodak

  • Anonymous

    Now that my eyes are failing me, I rely heavily on the auto focus. Damn!

  • Andrew MacDonald

    I bet thats one set of patents they regret selling.

  • ranger9

    I remember some of the publicity about this system, but calling the 1960 version “autofocus” is stretching it a bit. IIRC, it used an odd property of the CdS photocells commonly used for metering in those days: because the cell’s conductor makes a tightly-spaced back-and-forth path, it can be used as a primitive contrast detector. You had to use it by “nulling” — as you crept up on perfect focus, the meter circuit would read higher and higher, until suddenly it would dip slightly; this was the perfect focus point. Hardly as quick as an M3’s rangefinder, so they never did anything with it.

    By 1976 they had shown their “Correfot” system, which COULD focus automatically and was somewhat similar in concept to today’s phase-detection systems – except that theirs needed a vibrating diffraction grating, which made it too complicated to work with 1970s technology. And it wasn’t a “first” anymore, as other makers — such as Canon — had been showing crude AF cameras since the ’60s.

  • Eamon Hickey

    Just a quick note: The Maxxum 7000 in the picture did not use Leica’s AF system. It used a variation of the Honeywell Visitronic system, a different technology. Minolta used Honeywell’s technology without permission and ended up paying a huge patent infringement settlement because of it. (Nearly the entirety of the rest of the Japanese camera industry, which had also co-opted Honeywell’s patents without permission, quickly settled with Honeywell after Minolta lost its case in court.)

    Leica’s system, called Correfot, was, as far as I know, never commercialized by anybody.

  • Derek

    That lead photo brought back memories. It was the mainstay of our family for years. I think my folks still have their Maxxum 7000 and it was my introduction to photography.

  • Anonymous

    Id like to point out that Leitz-Wertzlar have been using “Automatische Scharfeinstellung” (auto focus) since 1933 in their most excellent enlarger Focomat I an enlarger design that remaind mostly untouched with improvements as time and research progressed. The classic focomat design did excellent up till 1980’s (1983 if memory serves me right) withthe last iteration having the major overhaul in 1958 (Focomat II) and a simpler (i.e. only 135 film as opposed to 135 and 120) version valled the V35 in 1970s-1995ish.

    Thing is Leitz-Wertzlar knew that autofocus is a practical thing for their users in the darkroom, while realising that the average LEItz CAmera user revels in simplicity and autofocus in a camera would quite frankly not be the Leica style.

    I have just recently aquired a Focomat IIc and it is with out a doubt the best built enlarger I have ever seen. Have not powerd it up just yet, I’m trying to read the manual (in german, which I dont know) right now.

  • Christopher S.D Buck

    I still use and have my 7000… ┬áStill a GREAT camera