In 1938, while the Universal Camera Corporation was introducing the Iris Series cameras described in the previous post, they dropped a real bombshell on the photographic world. Unlike practically everything else they ever made, this product had real significance, and garnered respect from the rest of the industry. The camera was called the UniveX Mercury Model CC, and it would go on to be the camera for which its maker is remembered.
Need for an American-made Candid Camera
In 1937, when design work on the Mercury Model CC began, serious “candid camera” photographers, be they amateur or professional, didn’t have much to choose from in the area of American-made cameras. The Iris Series was very low-end, although popular. The Zenith, selling at $12-15, was a good value for the money, but it didn’t used 35mm film, so color prints and slides were out of the question. Argus, in Chicago, had a compact Bakelite bodied candid camera that did use 35mm film, but its top shutter speed was 1/200 second. Europe, on the other hand, had some truly well-engineered 35mm cameras, such as the Leica and the Contax. These cameras had interchangeable lenses, focal plane shutters offering speeds to 1/1000 second and higher, and possessed build quality, fit, finish, and operational accuracy that nothing in the U.S. could touch. They were also very expensive. In 1939 (closest year I could get), the Leica cost $171, the Contax a whopping $285. The average hourly worker in the United States in 1939 made 63 cents an hour and worked an average of 37.7 hours per week, for a total of $23.86. Obviously, many people made more money than this, and quite a few made less. But for marketing purposes, I would think that one wouldn’t want to price a luxury item like a camera at much higher than a week’s pay for a working man. And in fact, Argus followed that very path in 1939, pricing their Argus C at $25. So, there was the price target – Universal needed to design a serious camera to sell for $25. And it needed features that would elevate its status to that of Leica and Contax, presenting the camera as a serious tool for serious photographers. This was the task that Universal’s Chief Engineer, George Kende, faced when he began work on the Mercury.
George Kende’s Mercury Design
Two years earlier, as his first assignment at Universal, George had designed and engineered a compact 8mm movie camera called the UniveX Cine 8. He used his knowledge of shutters used in movie cameras to design a unique rotary shutter for still cameras that would be extremely accurate, and capable of very high speeds. Most importantly, the simple design required a minimum number of parts, which could be assembled using unskilled labor. He employed aluminum and zinc die-cast parts to reduce the amount of precision machining required. He sourced out the interchangeable lenses to domestic manufacturers like Wollensak. The camera used a scale-focusing lens mount, but an accessory rangefinder (outsourced) was available as an option. Universal produced the clip-on extinction meter in-house. The final detail was one that he’d been wrestling with for a while: the camera needed flash synchronization, and no one at Universal liked the idea of dangling wires connecting the camera’s shutter to the flashgun. So, George designed a “hot shoe,” an accessory clip with an electrical contact in the center which would allow the camera’s shutter to trip the flash using the internal circuitry inside. If you have a 35mm camera of any kind, you’ve probably seen a hot shoe – nearly every camera that accepts an electronic flash has one. But the Mercury Model CC was the very first camera to employ one, and every other UniveX camera with flash synchronization used it, too. That’s how the Iris and Zenith Cameras got their own Flash versions.
Of course, the Mercury was tripping flashbulbs, not an electronic flash unit, so the synchronization had to allow for the time required for the bulb to ignite, so that the maximum brightness coincided with the time that the shutter opening passed in front of the film plane. George used a near-circular cam mounted on the shutter shaft to trip the flash contacts at just the right time. All these details were patented by Universal, and George Kende is the primary inventor. Philip Brownscombe was the secondary inventor.
The Mercury Model CC is a Success
When the Mercury hit the market late in 1938, it was an immediate success. No 35mm in the world could provide the features and performance of the Mercury at anywhere near its initial selling price of $25. Universal’s net sales, having slumped in early 1938, showed a gain of over 25% in 1939, and the camera continued to sell in spite of all the company’s other difficulties, right up until 1941, when Universal became engaged in the business of making binoculars for the war effort.
The Mercury in its finished form is strange-looking for a 35mm camera. The rotary shutter took up a lot of space, requiring a “hump” along the back plane to accommodate the large circular blades. The two knobs in front of the camera controlled the shutter speed setting and advanced the film. The format is known as a “half frame”, providing a vertical 18 x 24 mm frame size, half the size of a conventional 35mm negative. The camera is small and light compared to most of the cameras in its class that were available at the time, weighing about a pound and a half, and measuring 5-1/4” x 3-3/8” x 1-3/8”. The rounded corners make it look and feel smaller.
The specs are impressive:
Lens: 35mm F/3.5 Wollensak Tricor (std), 35mm f/2.7 Wollensak Tricor (opt) or 35mm f/2.0 Hexar (opt). All provide continuous stops down to f/22.
Focusing: Scale focusing from 1-1/2 feet to infinity
Shutter: Rotary focal plane, speeds 1/20 to 1/1000 second plus B & T
Accessories: Clip-on rangefinder (uncoupled), Univex extinction meter, Mercury Photoflash Unit, Rapid Winder, 75mm Ilex Telecor lens, 125mm Wollensak telephoto lens, 35mm daylight film loader with Univex reloadable cartridges for Mercury and Corsair I cameras, Univex Micrographic Enlarger, Univex Copy Stand.
With a maximum shutter speed of 1/1000 second, the Mercury was the fastest candid camera in the United States. But the Contax shutter, at 1/1250 second, was still faster. Universal would now challenge Contax in their quest to offer the best-performing candid camera at an affordable price. Next up: The Mercury CC-1500 Superspeed.
Strange footnotes: Scrounging around the flea markets can be tedious, and there’s no substitute for the excitement of recognizing a rare item marked with a low price. A while back, I was browsing the aisles when I spotted a Univex Hexar f/2.0 box marked $1.00. When I picked up the box, I could tell by the weight that there was a lens inside. I threw the money at the seller, all the while trying to remain nonchalant. I took the box without examining its contents – I couldn’t bring myself to look inside. Of course, when I did venture to look inside the blue plush-lined box, I found, not the Hexar (value: about a hundred bucks), but the entry-level f/3.5 Tricor (value: maybe ten bucks). The instruction sheet was for an f/2.7 Tricor, another normal lens that was available for the Mercury. Even so, any pristine UniveX product is a bargain at a dollar!