Robot (camera)

Robot (camera)

Robot is a German imaging company most known for traffic surveillance (Traffipax), bank security and clockwork cameras.

Originally created as a brand in 1934 of Otto Berning and Co its, since 1999, part of the JENOPTIK-Gruppe of optical companies. In 2002 the company renamed itself from Robot Foto & Electronic to ROBOT Visual Systems GmbH.

We focus in this article on their motorized amateur cameras powered by spring motors. These were made between as early as 1934 and ended with a special limited edition collectors model („Star Classic“) in 1996.

Most of the analog Robot cameras used 35 mm film in 24 x 24 mm image format but many supported 18 x 24 mm (so-called half-format) and 24 x 36 mm (standard Leica format) alongside quite exotic formats such as 6 x 24 mm (Recorder 6), 12 x 24 mm (Recorder 12) and 16 x 16 mm (Robot SC).


Around 1930 Heinz Kilfitt, a trained watchmaker, designed a new 35 mm film compact camera using a 24x24 mm frame format (instead of the Leica 24x36 mm or cine 18x24 mm formats). The 24x24mm square frame provided many advantages including allowing for over 50 exposures per standard roll of Leica film instead of 36. Kodak and Agfa rejected the design and it was sold to Hans Berning who set up the Otto Berning firm.

Otto Berning got its first Robot patent in 1934. This omitted the spring motor drive as it was originally intended to come in two versions: Robot I, without motor, and Robot II with a spring motor. Its release was delayed and already the first camera "Robot I" included its hallmark spring motor. The first production cameras had a spring drive that could turn at a sensational 4 frames per second. The body of the Robot 1 is Stainless steel. Kilfitt designed a rotary shutter with speeds from 1 to 1/500th second. The camera used proprietary "Type K" cartridges, not the standard 35 mm cartridges—introduced in the same year by Kodak's Dr. August Nagel Kamerawerk for the Retina—available today. The camera has no rangefinder. Its does not need one: it was designed for use mostly with short focal length lenses (e.g. 40 mm).

The Robot I was quite small, the body measuring only 4¼ inches long, 2½ inches high, and 1¼ inches deep. A razor sharp, zone focusing "f/"2.8, 3.25 cm Zeiss Tessar lens added only 1/2 inch to the camera depth. It was about the size of an Olympus Stylus although it weighed about 20 ounces, approximately the weight of a modern SLR. The die cast zinc and stamped stainless steel body was crammed with clockwork. A spring motor on the top plate provided the driving force for a rotary behind the lens shutter and a sprocket film drive. The film was loaded into cassettes in a darkroom or changing bag. The cassettes appear to be based on the Agfa Memo cassette design, the now-standard Kodak 35 mm cassette not yet being popular in Germany. In place of the velvet light trap on modern cassettes, the Robot cassette used spring pressure and felt pads to close the film passage. When the camera back was shut, the compression opened the passage and the film could travel freely from one cassette to another.

The rotary shutter and the film drive are like those used in cine cameras. When the photographer's finger pressed the shutter release, a light blocking shield lifted and the shutter disc rotated a full turn exposing the film through its open sector. When the finger was raised, the light blocking shield returned to its position behind the lens, the spring motor advanced the film and recocked the shutter. The action was almost instantaneous. With practice a photographer could take 4 or 5 pictures a second. Each winding of the spring motor was good for about 25 pictures or half a roll of film. Shutter speed was determined by spring tension and mechanical delay since the exposure sector was fixed. The Robot I had an exposure range of 1 to 1/500 s plus the usual provision for time exposures.

The camera had other features not specifically related to action photography. The small optical viewfinder could be rotated 90 degrees to permit pictures to be taken in one direction while the photographer was facing in another. When the viewfinder was rotated, the scene was viewed through a deep purple filter similar to those used by cinematographers to judge the black and white contrast of an image. The camera had a built in deep yellow filter which could be positioned behind the lens.

Robot II

In 1938, Berning introduced the Robot II, a slightly larger camera with some significant improvements but still using the basic mechanism. Among the standard objectives were 3 cm Zeiss Tessar and a 3¾4 cm Zeiss Tessar in 1:2.8 and 1:3.5 variations, a 1:2.0/40 mm Zeiss Biotar and 1:4/7.5 cm Zeiss Sonnar. The film cassette system was redesigned but it was only with the IIa launched in 1951 that film could accept a standard 35 mm cassette. The special Robot cassettes type-N continued their role for take up. A small bakelite box was sold to allow people to rewind colour film into the original cassettes as demanded by the film processing companies. The camera was synchronized for flash. The swinging viewfinder was retained but now operated by a lever rather than moving the entire housing. Both the deep purple filter and the yellow filter were eliminated in the redesign. Some versions were available with a double wind motor which could expose 50 frames. WWII stopped civilian production of the Robot but it was used as a gun camera by the Luftwaffe.

Robot Star

In the 1950s Robot introduced the Robot Star. Film could be now be rewound back into the feed cassette in the camera just like mainstream 35 mm cameras.

Robot then introduced the "Junior", an economy model with the quality and almost all the features of the "Star" but without the angle finder and without the rewind mechanism.

In the late 50s, the company, now called Robot-Berning, redesigned the Robot Star and created the Vollautomat Star II. The length stayed the same but the height increased by half an inch. The new higher top housing disposed of the right angle finder and instead included an Albada finder with frames for the factory fitted 38/40 mm and 75 mm lenses. The drive and shutter too were improved. By 1960 the hallmark stamped steel body was replaced by heavier die castings. The camera became with slight changes the Robot Star 25 and Star 50. The Robot Star 25 could expose 25 frames on a single winding, the double motor Robot Star 50 could, naturally, expose 50 frames. Since most cameras by then were sold for industrial use where the camera was fixed in position Robot also introduced versions without a finder—and even without rewind. Although most production dates from the 1950-60s era, essentially the same camera continued to be manufactured into the late 1990s.

During the Cold War, Robots had a large following in the espionage business. The small camera could be concealed in a briefcase or a handbag, the lens poking though a decorative hole. The camera could be activated repeatedly by a cable release concealed in the handle. The company was well aware of this market and produced a variety of accessories which made the camera even more suitable for covert image making.

Robot-Berning also produced enlarged versions of the Robot, the Robot Royal 18, 24 and 36, with an incorporated rangefinder and with an autoburst mode of operation capable of shooting 6 frames per second. The camera was about the size of a Leica M3 and weighed almost 2 pounds. It was equipped with a Schneider Xenar 45 mm "f/"2.8 lens. The Robot Royal 36 took a standard size 35 mm picture but was identical to the Royal 24 in all other regards. They retained the behind-the-lens rotary shutter with speeds from 1/2 to 1/500 s.

A version for instrumentation (and traffic) was also created on the basis of the Royal design: the Recorder. These cameras were like the Royal but without viewfinder or rangefinder. They, however, included interfaces to motors and had detachable backs to support bulk film cassettes. A special parallel series of the Royal too was available that included these features. While the Royal had only limited market success the Recorder was well accepted. It became centerpiece of their portable document capture, traffic control and security solutions. It continues today to be the standard Robot camera for instrumentation applications.

While all agree that the Robots were superb at sequence photography, the shutter that made this possible placed some constraints upon taking objectives and shutter speed. To reach speeds as high as 1/500 second, the inertia of the thin steel shutter disc had to be kept at a minimum. This meant a small-diameter disc with a minimal sector opening. The screw in lens mount was 26 mm diameter. The clear lens opening was only 20 mm. In contrast, Leica's mount at 39 mm was almost twice as large. Further, to permit lens interchangeability, the shutter was mounted behind the lens so the disc interrupted the expanding light cone. This placed some limits on lens design. While the 75 mm Sonnar could be used with the aperture set to "f/"22, the Tele-Xenar would show some shutter disc vignetting unless opened more.The maximum focal length lens for general photographic use that could be fitted with acceptable vignetting was 75 mm although telephotos such up to 600 mm were offered. A 150 mm Tele-Xenar were offered supplied for long distance action photography, however they produced a circular image on the 24 x 24 mm frame. The lack of a rangefinder on the Robot and Robot Star required zone focusing of these long lenses. Every shot had to be estimated or premeasured. All of the mechanical movement made for a noisy camera, although not as noisy as some modern motor drives. For an extra fee, Robot-Berning supplied silenced versions with nylon gears for discreet use.

Within its limits the Robots did an excellent job of sequence photography. The standard 38 mm "f/"2.8 Xenar lenses were extremely sharp, even by today's standards, and zone focusing worked well on rapid action with short focal length lenses. The reliable motor drive was as fast, if not faster, than current electrical drives and there were no batteries to run down. Flash could be used at any speed. The square frame was big enough, given modern films, for 8 x 10 or greater enlargements and 50 pictures could be taken on a standard 36 exposure roll. The cameras, especially the later ones built to industrial standards, will take much abuse and still keep functioning. They show what precision mechanical equipment is all about.


* [ Robot 1]

External links

* [ Heinz Kilfitt - Biographical Notes]

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