The Robot camera is one of those cameras that does one job extremely well at the sacrifice of other photographic capabilities. But there wasn't just one Robot camera; there were many.
The Robot I was introduced in 1934 by Otto Berning & Co. as the first motor driven camera to be specifically designed for still photography. Allegedly designed at the insistence of the German government to record the expected German triumphs at the upcoming 1936 Olympics, the Robot used a spring driven motor to take 24 x 24 mm pictures on standard 35 mm film as fast as the shutter release could be pressed.
The Robot I was quite small, the body measuring only 4.25 inches long, 2.5 inches high, and 1.25 inches deep. A razor sharp, zone-focusing f2.8, 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 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 driven from one cassette to another. The cassettes appear to be slightly modified Agfa Memo cassettes, the now standard Kodak 35 mm cassette not yet being popular in Germany. The film was threaded from one cassette to another. In place of the velvet light trap on modern cassettes, the Robot cassette used spring pressure to close the film passage. When the camera back was shut, the pressure opened the passage and the film could travel freely from one cassette to another.
The rotary shutter and the film drive are reminiscent of those used in motion picture 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 film was advanced, and the shutter was recocked. 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 sec. plus the usual provision for time exposures (AKA, "B").
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.
In 1938, Berning introduced the Robot II, a slightly larger camera with some improvements but still using the basic mechanism. A 40mm f2.0 Biotar was fitted as the standard lens. The film could now be fed from a standard 35 mm cassette but still required a Robot cassette for take up. The camera was synchronized for flash. The swinging viewfinder was retained but now operated by a lever rather than moving the entire housing. The deep purple filter was eliminated in the redesign. Some versions were available with a double wind motor which could expose 50 frames. As one would expect, WWII stopped civilian production of the Robot but it was used in EIGHT different military incarnations -- mainly for the Luftwaffe. At some point after the War, production of the Robot II returned for a while. An updated version of this camera, fitted with a Schneider Xenon 40mm f1.9 lens, was released as the Robot IIa in 1951.
During the mid-1950s, several similar models appeared for at least a short period of time, such as the Royal and Recorder cameras. In the late 1950s, the company, now called Robot-Berning, completely redesigned the Robot and aimed it at industrial, rather than amateur, users. The stamped steel body was replace by die castings. The length stayed the same but the height increased by half an inch and the weight by 50%. The new higher top housing had a mediocre Albada finder with frames for the factory fitted zone focused Schneider Xenar 38mm f2.8 lens and an accessory Tele-Xenar 75 mm f3.5 lens. The shutter retained its basic form although it was redesigned slightly. The camera still required special take-up cassettes although it could feed from standard cassettes. Film could be rewound back into the feed cassette, however, just like every other 35 mm camera. The Robot Star 25 could expose 25 frames on a single winding, the double motor Robot Star 50 could, naturally, expose 50 frames. The so-so finder made little difference to users since most cameras were sold for industrial use where the camera was fixed in position. Although production dates from the 50-60s era, essentially the same camera without viewfinder is currently being manufactured as an industrial recording instrument.
Robot-Berning also produced enlarged versions of the Robot, the Robot Royal 24 and 36, with an incorporated range finder 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 45mm f2.8 lens. The Robot Royal 36 took a standard size 35mm picture although it was identical to the Royal 24 in all other regards. Both cameras retained the behind the lens rotary shutter with speeds from 1/2 to 1/500 sec.
While all agree that the Robots were superb at sequence photography, the behind the lens sector shutter that made this possible limited other photographic activities. 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 half again larger. Further, to permit lens interchangeability, the shutter was mounted behind the lens so the disc interrupted the expanding light cone. The maximum focal length lens that could be fitted with acceptable vignetting was the f.3.5 75 mm Tele-Xenar. Even the 40 mm F2 Biotar showed shutter disc vignetting. Although lenses of up to 200 mm were supplied for long distance action photography, they produced a circular image on the 24 x 24 mm frame. The lack of a rangefinder required guess focusing of these long lenses. Every shot had to be 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 silent versions with nylon gears for discrete use.
Within its limits the Robots did an excellent job of sequence photography. The standard 38 mm f2.8 Xenar lenses were extremely sharp, even by today's standards, and zone-focusing worked well on rapid action. The reliable motor drive was as fast, if not faster than current electrical drives and the batteries never ran 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 exposures could be fitted on a standard roll. The cameras, especially the later ones built to industrial standards, will take a unbelievable amount of abuse and still keep functioning. Any camera user would do well to acquire one of these gems to see what precision mechanical equipment is all about.
Like many other camera companies, Robots came in a variety of film formats
from 24x36mm down to 16x16mm square -- but they ALL used 35mm film. They
are all listed here -- in chronological order -- even though they were not
all true subminis:
There were a variety of lens for these cameras over the years from 30mm to 400mm. They came in screw mount and bayonet mounts.
To return to the main index for the Sub Club click here.
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