Vintage and Classic Cameras
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Robot II, (Berning) 35mm autowind camera c1938. This example c1947.

The Robot II is one of a handful of cameras that were designed by a non camera maker. Originally the brainchild of a watchmaker by the name of Heinz Kilfitt, inspired to make a camera for 35mm movie film respooled into canisters, the popularity of which was being demonstrated by Leitz with their Leica. After a false start he eventually managed to sell the design to one Hans Berning, who created a company to manufacture it as the Robot I in 1934. Kilfitt had earlier failed to interest Kodak in the design, understandably as Kodak's motivation was to simplify and cheapen photography to create a large customer base for its films. The Robot camera was complex to manufacture and required a darkroom or dark bag to spool film from a bulk supply to a Robot specific film canister, both of which were an anathema to Kodak. Besides which, Kodak were hatching plans for their own spooled 35mm format and camera which, also in 1934, would become the 135DLC and Retina 117 respectively.

The Robot I of 1934 was a success and was developed into this Robot II for 1938 now with a satin chromed top housing, supplanting the earlier Robot I, both of which share the characteristic clockwork mechanism that advances the film after each picture has been taken, a feature that enables a rapid sequence of images to be captured and arguably the Robot's principle selling point. The Robot II takes 35mm film, which still needs to be wound into camera specific canisters, type 'T' for the supply and type 'N' for the take up spool. Berning resisted making the camera compatible with the increasingly popular Kodak 135 film canister until the advent of the Robot IIa in 1951, even then it required the type 'N' spool as the camera could not rewind the film back into the 135 canister at that stage, although later versions did. The Leica had adopted the 135 canister much earlier, and just about very 35mm camera after 1935 used the Kodak canister.

Despite it's oddities, these Robot cameras were successful and after several iterations were discontinued around 1959.

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Wrecked Robot II

The camera is seemingly designed to make manufacture as difficult as possible, using many different processes and almost every fixing is different, using a variety of different driver heads. The camera front, top plate, bottom and the rear hatch are pressed from a low chromium content stainless steel, to be both corrosion resistent yet ductile. This wouldn't be stiff enough alone for the lens mount, so the front is spot welded to a stainless chamfered plate thick enough for rigidity and accepting threads. To this is mounted the turned brass lens ring on the front with the shutter mechanism and clockwork film advance mechanism from behind. The shutter mechanism was supplied by Gauthier and was specific to the Robot. Uniquely, it is a rotary sector shutter with a constant cutout, various shutter speeds being achieved by the speed of sweep, with an escapement mechanism for longer exposures. As the shutter blade needs to return to the start position by sweeping backwards, a secondary blind is built in to prevent light falling on the film, this secondary blind also ends the exposure for long (B) exposures. The clockwork drive mechanism is predominantly brass, using two powerful steel springs wound into a barrel beneath the large winding knob on the top of the camera. A governor is built into this mechanism, giving a characteristic buzzing noise after each exposure, it's task is to restrain the mechanism to avoid ripping out the sprocket holes in the film as it's advanced, the shutter is also reset and cocked by these springs. The design is cleverly arranged to avoid complicated linkages between shutter and powertrain, just line them up, and it will work. The internal mechanisms are protected by a die cast zinc alloy casting that also forms the focal plane and film recesses. The top housing is pressed from brass and satin chrome plated, and sits on a pressed brass tray that helps keep the mechanisms and viewing optics beneath clear of dust. All the controls are from turned brass, as is the lens barrel which is then bright chrome plated. The camera is finished in a faux leather formed from a plasticized coating on a linen base, glued to the shells and mirror chrome plating to the exposed parts of the shells. The film canisters are formed from brass with die cast zinc alloy spools. With all this brass and pressed steel the camera is fairly weighty, a Robot II with loaded film canister weighs 660g (23.25 oz). Build quality throughout is very high and the tolerances tight, as anyone who has attempted to get one apart will attest.

Our example was acquired in November 2018 in decidedly ratty condition. It had clearly been stored in the open, probably in an attic judging by the extensive baked on dust and damp damage. A film discovered inside the take up spool was processed to reveal some very badly damaged images that date from the mid 1970s at which time the camera was exhibiting mechanical trouble as several frames were overlapped, then there was a long sequence taken at a rakish angle in an old office where someone was clearly testing it. The lens serial, would suggest the lens was made around 1944, but production of civilian Robot cameras was on hold at this time, so our camera must have been assembled post war. In June 2019 the camera was given a deep clean and overhaul, retaining the patina from heavy use, but undoing neglect and damage so far as was possible. The covering was replaced as it was beyond saving. The mechanical trouble exhibited on the negatives was a broken spring clutch, which was repaired. The deep clean of this camera is covered in Project 8 in the workshop pages.

Body No. B 91817
Shutter, serial 39407 (stamped into clockwork base plate, though technically this isn't part of the shutter, see Project 8 for an image).
Lens, 40mm Schneider Kreuznach Xenon, No. 870465, f/1.9.
Condition, 5G (Considered non functional due to severe fungus etching of the lens).

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