The word robot
was invented by Czech writer Karel Čapek in 1920. Derived from robota
(hard work), it almost instantly became popular all over the world - and in the 1930s emerged as a trademark.
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 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 stainless steel body, a spring drive that could shoot 4 frames per second, and 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 needs no rangefinder, as it was designed for use mostly with short focal length lenses (e.g. 40 mm) with great depth of field.
The Robot I was quite small, the body measuring only 4¼ inches long, 2½ inches high, and 1¼ inches deep. A very 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 a modern 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 shutter release is pressed, a light-blocking shield lifts and the shutter disc rotates a full turn exposing the film through its open sector; when the pressure is released the light-blocking shield returns to its position behind the lens, and the spring motor advances the film and recocks the shutter. This is 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, 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.
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 3¾ 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 colour film to be rewound into the original cassettes as required 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 and yellow filters 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.
In the 1950s Robot introduced the Robot Star. Film could now be rewound into the feed cassette in the camera as in other 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 or 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, and the double motor Robot Star 50 could 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 photography.
Robot-Berning also produced enlarged versions of the Robot, the Robot Royal 18, 24 and 36, with built-in 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 35 mm still 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.
The consumer Robots were discontinued in 1968. But if you want a rugged all-metal compact camera, capable of 5 fps, equipped with an ultra-sharp fast lens - The Robot is your natural choice!
Stephen Gandy's brilliant article
ft. Robot I is highly recommended.