Shimano Iron Works was established in 1921 by Shozaburo Shimano in Sakae, near Osaka. In 1951 the company changed its name to Shimano Industrial Co.
Shozaburo Shimano’s first product was the ‘3.3.3.’ single freewheel. In 1956 Shimano produced its first derailleur, also called the ‘3.3.3.’. It was a pull-chain model loosely based on a Cyclo design, with one sprung pivot and one unsprung pivot. However, Shimano’s real interest at this time lay in hub gears. It ceased production of derailleurs in 1958, when it launched its three speed hub gear (inevitably called the ‘3.3.3.’), which was immensely successful. The 3.3.3. hub gear was significant because it established Shimano as more than a freewheel and derailleur company. Shimano has always been more ambitious than its competitors in terms of the scope of its product range.
The legend that I have been told is that:
The legend goes that by 1965 Shimano wanted to offer a multiple sprocket system for the 3.3.3. hub gear, similar to the systems sold successfully by Fichtel und Sachs in Germany (various systems were also available in Britain for the Sturmey-Archer hub - but none were very popular). The result was the Combi 12 - a four speed sprocket combining with the 3.3.3. three speed hub, all operated by a parallelogram derailleur that was loosely based on the Campagnolo Sportman. In 1966 they then decided to sell the derailleur from the Combi 12 as a component in its own right and called it the Archery - and their derailleur business was born. I should stress that this is not at all the story recounted by Hiroshi Nakamura in his ‘History of the Derailleur in Japan’. He does not even mention the Combi 12. He identifies the first Shimano parallelogram derailleur as being a 1965 model inevitably called the ‘3.3.3.’ (although I suppose he could be referring to the hub gear in the Combi 12 ‘kit’. It all gets a tad confusing when you give all your different products the same model name). But it’s a good legend whether or not it is true - Nexus as the spiritual father of Dura-Ace and XTR.
The next milestone was the launch of the 1967 Skylark. This was a ‘copy’ of the derailleur that Simplex should have been making - an affordable, steel, version of the plastic Simplex Prestige 537 (or, if you like, a combination of the 1965 plastic Simplex Prestige 537 and the 1961 steel Simplex Juy Export 61). The Skylark continues in production to this day, with very few substantive changes, as the Tourney TY18. Copies of it are also produced in their tens of millions by Taiwanese, Chinese and now Indian companies. Forget ‘25 years of Deore XT’ - how about ‘40 years of the Skylark’? When the world changes gear - it uses a Skylark.
The Skylark also leads me to another Shimano legend that:
This legend goes that in the late 1950’s Simplex dominated the derailleur world - but then committed commercial suicide by adopting (in 1962) the ‘wonder material’ of space-age engineering plastic. Shimano were the first company to really understand Simplex’s error and, by using Simplex’s basic design but avoiding the false god of ‘wonder materials’ and sticking to steel and aluminium, came to dominate the world in their place. in the 1960’s Shimano’s belief system was simple - plastic = bad, steel = good. And that is, supposedly, why, to this day, it is hard to find structural plastics, fancy composites, magnesium or even titanium in any Shimano derailleurs. This is also an entertaining legend - but may not hold up in the face of the fact that Shimano does use exotic composites in its footwear and (possibly) in its fishing gear.