Tullio Campagnolo was a young professional racing cyclist in Italy in the 1920s. At the time, the only concession to multiple gearing used by racing cyclists was to have two sprockets of different sizes, one on each side of the wheel; in order to change gear, you had to get off, remove the back wheel (which was secured by wingnuts) and replace it the other way round. While leading a late-season race which crossed the Croce d'Aune mountain pass in a snowstorm, Campagnolo stopped to change to the lower gear, but, in a state of near-frostbite, was unable to loosen the wingnuts and had to watch as his opponents passed him, one by one.
his experience inspired Campagnolo to retire from racing and invent, not the derailleur gear as has been suggested, but the quick-release hub. The derailleur gear had already been invented in various forms, but was not considered reliable enough for competition use; Campagnolo's newly founded company refined it and they began to be used for racing in the mid-1930s.
The company, based in Vicenza in the Veneto, built up an international reputation for extremely reliable components, particularly in the post-war period; designs were fairly conservative but eventually their market-leading position meant that their specifications became de facto standards for other companies. Development was steady and parts were generally back-compatible. They concentrated largely on racing equipment, both road and track, and ignored other cycling market sectors, although their experience in work with lightweight alloys enabled them to get involved in aerospace as well as producing alloy wheels for racing motorcycles and cars, including Ferrari. Tullio's other interests and exacting technical requirements also led them to produce the mother of all lever corkscrews.
During the late 1970s the company, which had had almost a monopoly over high-quality racing bike gears, hubs, chainsets and brakes, started to face competition from emerging Japanese manufacturers like Sakae Ringkyo, SunTour and, in particular, Shimano, who created their markets by competing on price and then added high quality ranges later. By now Tullio was getting on a bit and the company started to lose direction somewhat. Hastily developed new product ranges below the flagship Record line were mediocre and unsuccessful and in the 1980s the company failed to notice the mountain bike boom, which allowed Shimano to develop a dominant position in important emerging markets such as the USA and a solid bridgehead in Europe, bolstered by a changing market pattern which moved away from selling individual components (with no major compatibility problems between different manufacturers' products) in favour of complete matching groupsets, particularly for the OEM market; this was exacerbated by technical developments, in particular indexed gearing, which made it more difficult to ensure compatibility between different manufacturers' drivetrain components.
Company leadership passed from Tullio to his son Valentino in the late 1980s. By now following rather than leading in terms of both technical development and marketing, the company adopted Shimano's (or rather, Ford's) methods: a carefully positioned hierarchy of product ranges with annual tweaks which both introduced a healthy dose of built-in obsolescence and shifted each brand gradually up the pricing (and status) scale.
The company's current products are of a high quality in terms of performance and reliability, but it is no longer possible, as it once was, to assume that you will be able to buy spares for this years model in five or ten years' time, nor for a retailer to carry a serious stock of spares. Welcome to the 21st century.