Tag Archives: Candid Cameras

“America’s Challenge to the World’s Finest Cameras” – the UniveX Mercury Model CC

Mercury I with Flash

Mercury Model CC with Flash Unit

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

Mercury I Design Drawings

Mercury I Design Drawings - 1937

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.

Mercury shutter patent drawing

Mercury shutter patent drawing - this patent also covered the "hot shoe"

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.

Mercury I Closeup 2

Note the 1/1000 sec maximum shutter speed, biggest selling feature of the Mercury

The Camera

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. 

Mercury I Front

The Univex Mercury Model CC

Mercury I Back

The Mercury's exposure calculator is so complicated it takes 2-1/2 pages to explain it in the instruction manual

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.

Micrographic Enlarger

A decrepit example of the Micrographic Enlarger

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!


Lens Box

This f/2 Hexar box turned out to be a fake-out



How Hitler Increased the Value of My Camera Collection

Iris Series

Here's the whole Iris line - note the massive flashbulb on the Zenith!

In 1938, a lot of things were happening at the Universal Camera Corporation.  The company had entered the “Vest Pocket Camera” market just about the time that the craze for small folding cameras was coming to an end.  Sales were falling off for both the UniveX Model A and the Model AF Folding Cameras, because many buyers of those cameras were progressing to more feature-laden designs with lens opening and shutter speed adjustments – features not available in the current UniveX product line.  As the simple cameras fell into disuse, sales of “00” film were also dropping, and the need for a new product to reinvigorate film sales was apparent.

Kodak Bantam

The competition: the Kodak Bantam, though a folder, was an early candid camera with full focusing and exposure controls

Therefore, the next step in their product development plan involved a rigid-bodied camera with a collapsible lens, with both f-stop and shutter speed adjustments.  Cameras of this type were then generally known as candid cameras.  Cameras of this type available at the time included Kodak’s Bantam and Kodak 35, the German Leica and Contax (for those with lots of bucks), and Argus’ Models A, AF, and B.    From a price standpoint, the Argus cameras were the real competition.  They offered a simple fixed focus model with adjustable lens openings and shutter speeds, a scale-focusing model with the aforementioned features, and one with all of the above plus a built-in extinction meter.  

Universal’s plan was to cut costs and create a low-priced candid camera product line that ran the gamut from simple to sophisticated.  They created a zinc die-cast body as a base for all the models, then designed a progrssively more full-featured line of products based on the original platform. 

Iris Standard Candid Camera

Iris Candid Camera

The Iris Standard Candid Camera (non-flash sync model)

The base model was christened the Iris Standard Candid Camera, and had a fixed-focus collapsible lens, f-stops from f/7.7 to f/22, and a simple T,B, & I shutter.  The zinc body had a black crinkled enamel finish, chrome lens barrel, and a satin-chrome front panel around the lens mount.  An optical viewfinder sat atop the body.

Iris Deluxe Candid Camera

Iris Deluxe

The Iris Deluxe Candid Camera (non-flash sync model)

The Iris Deluxe Candid Camera was more ornate, sporting a satin chrome finished body, and a black leatherette covering with the Iris logo stamped in white.  Initially, both cameras had identical features, then after about two months of production, the Deluxe model was fitted with a scale-focusing lens.  All Iris Deluxe models thereafter had a focusing lens, so fixed-focus Deluxes are uncommon.    

Zenith Candid Camera

Zenith Flash Camera

The Zenith Flash Candid Camera (with flash synchronizer)

The top-of-the-line UniveX candid camera was called the Zenith.  Aimed at serious amateur photographers, the Zenith had a die-cast aluminum alloy body, micrometer-focusing (non-collapsing) 50mm f/4.5 anastigmatic lens with 5 f-stop settings, shutter speeds of 1/25-1/200 second plus T & B, and optional flash synchronization.  Flash synchronization was offered on all lesser Iris models at around the same time.   The Zenith had a black leatherette covering, silver-stamped Zenith logo on the front of the camera body, satin chrome finish on all metal parts, and an optional eveready case. 

Hitler screws up a great marketing plan

These cameras all used Universal’s “00” rollfilm, and were very successfully launched throughout 1938 (Iris Standard & Deluxe) and 1939(Zenith), restoring sales of UniveX “00” rollfilm and dramatically improving the company’s bottom line.   The Zenith was the last model to be introduced, during the last few months of 1939, just in time for Christmas.  Sales were substantial, and life was good.  Then Hitler invaded Poland, and that was only the beginning.  As the German Army rolled through the German-speaking countries of Europe, Gevaert Company, the sole supplier of film to Universal, became unable to ship film from their own plants in Belgium late in 1939, and by spring of 1940, Belgium was occupied by the German Army.  Universal frantically tried to find another source of film, with no success.  It wasn’t until mid-1940 that Gevaert succeeded in building and starting up a film plant in the U. S., and for months afterward, UniveX film was scarce, even unavailable in most of the country.

As a result of this situation, people who received new UniveX Zenith Candid Cameras for Christmas were greeted with the news that film was not to be found.  Many, if not most, of these cameras were tossed in the trash as worthless.  As the most advanced camera designed to use the “00” rollfilm, the Zenith had been built in reduced numbers compared to the Irises to begin with.  The fact that the Zenith production run ended during the crisis resulted in a real scarcity of Zeniths to the camera collecting population.  It is regarded as the rarest of all UniveX camera models.  So I have Hitler to thank for the rarity and consequent value of my Zenith Flash Candid Camera.  

Strange footnote: when I started to prepare the photos of my Iris Series cameras for this post, I dragged everything out of storage, including an old decrepit camera that I bought as part of a box lot ages ago.  I had cataloged it as an Iris Deluxe model, but the leatherette was missing from most of the body, and it was really in rough shape.  As I went over the cameras I needed to photograph, I realized that the “Iris Deluxe” was actually another Zenith.  This may not amaze you, but I looked for nearly five years with great diligence to find my first Zenith (bought it on ebay, of course), and I’d be ashamed to tell you what I paid for it.  In the eight years since then, I’ve never seen another specimen anywhere, in any condition.  And I just found one in my own collection….

Rough Zenith Flash

It's ugly, but it's a Zenith! I'll be polishing, restoring and re-covering this baby in the near future.