The Birth of the Modern SLR
(by Peter Hennig)
Looking through the viewfinder of an SLR for the first time is
often a moment of truth. It seems obvious that this is how a camera
should be constructed - a camera where you can see exactly what
kind of image your lens is going to produce on the film.
It was the clarity of the idea that inspired German architect
Kurt Staudinger when he applied for a second class patent on an
SLR camera with a pentagonal prism in 1932.
During the 1930s Staudinger travelled around Germany visiting
all the camera manufacturers in an ultimately fruitless attempt
to convince them that an SLR with a viewing prism was the camera
of the future. None of them could be persuaded to act. Although
the idea received great interest and praise, no one dared to invest.
It is not hard to understand the manufacturers' reluctance. They
did not have the right sort of glass that would ensure that the
prism would be bright enough, and on top of that the aperture
had to be stopped down just before the exposure, with the consequence
that it was nearly impossible to see anything. It compared all
too unfavourably with the bright, clear image in a view finder
camera that could be quickly focused using an optical rangefinder.
There was no real money in such a project. In fact, Staudinger's
camera would not be built until after his patent had expired.
A prophet is never accepted in his own country.
From Idea to Prototype
The strength of the idea of a reflex camera with a viewing
prism haunted the camera manufacturers. At many companies it lived
on, especially at Zeiss Ikon in Dresden. As early as 1938 a wooden
model of an SLR with a pentagonal prism was sitting on the desk
of the head designer, Hubert Nerwin. It was a high priority project,
but the outbreak of World War II the following year forced them
to rein in their ambitions. The German authorities ordered that
new civilian projects were to be dispensed with, but work on the
camera continued discretely with the approval of the company management.
Under difficult conditions, with only lunch breaks and spare time
available to them, Nerwin and his staff managed to develop their
SLR as far as a full production model. The patent was registered
in 1941. In a 1943 interview for a photography magazine, the Zeiss
Ikon management said: 'We have developed new and interesting products,
but they will have to wait until the war is over.' They were still
blithely ignorant of the fact that the end of the war would bring
the near total destruction of the company.
The Missing Prototype
As part of the work that led up to the patent it was necessary
to conduct practical tests on different versions of the prism.
A couple of Contax II cameras were rebuilt, and the rangefinders
replaced with a mount that allowed them to change prisms easily.
Both cameras disappeared when Soviet troops occupied Dresden in
the spring of 1945, but one of them was to resurface spectacularly
in the autumn of the same year in the hands of a Soviet soldier.
He complained loudly about the broken prototype, and demanded
that it be repaired immediately. The technician who dealt with
him did not have the presence of mind simply to replace it with
another camera, and instead repaired it. Since then neither of
the prototypes has been seen again.
In February 1945, when to all intents and purposes the war
had been won by the Allies, Dresden was bombed. The ensuing firestorm
destroyed not only one of Europe's richest cultural centres, but
also most of the German camera industry.
The situation at Zeiss Ikon, which held the camera of the future
in embryonic form, the situation was desperate. How would they
ever be able to produce cameras again? Germany had been bombed
beyond recognition and divided into occupation zones, nothing
worked, the Mark had collapsed, and German patents were invalid.
Most of the Zeiss factory premises came under Soviet military
administration. There was no end to the list of problems ahead
of the surviving company management.
Eggs in Different Baskets
With brutal logic, the Soviet military government had seized
and removed the entire factory where the high status cameras of
the day - the Contax II and III - were produced, and set the tone
between conqueror and conquered. The best choice now seemed to
be to restart production in the relatively undamaged Stuttgart
factory in the American zone. This job fell to Hubert Nerwin,
who was also instructed to develop new models of the viewfinder
Contax camera. Finding competent staff proved difficult as most
were dead or missing. A young engineer based in Dresden, Wilhelm
Wizenburg, was given the responsibility of developing the 1941
patent into a finished prism-equipped Contax SLR. The work that
followed was amongst the strangest in the history of the camera.
In just a few years, in a land that had been brought to its knees
where you had to bribe your way to obtain the smallest component
and screws were a hard currency, the camera of the future was
born. The first of these SLRs, the Contax S, was shown unofficially
at the St. Erik fair in Stockholm the autumn of 1948. It was officially
presented a year later at the Leipzig fair.
Completed and lost
The division of Germany also brought with it the division
of Zeiss. The Contax S was officially unveiled in the same year
as the DDR was founded. Its development into a finished camera
was the result of the spirit of innovation within the Zeiss Ikon
company, but it its entire production history is East German,
as it was made by VEB Zeiss Ikon, the part of Zeiss Ikon seized
by the East German government. Few camera designs have had such
a remarkable beginning, and none have been so successful. Millions
upon millions of this type of camera have been produced. The pentaprism
SLR and its widespread popularity still stand as a reminder of
the power of German engineering.
The blueprint of the 1941 patent for a pentaprism Contax SLR
with a coupled exposure meter and metal shutter. The final production
model was simpler because of the difficult circumstances.
You can see more articles and information by Peter Henning on
the Photodo.com website - a great resource for photographers around