Before I continue the Mercury saga, I’d like to give credit to the source of much of the factual information contained in the past few posts. The UniveX Story, by Cynthia Repinski, is the absolute last word on the origins and history of the Universal Camera Company. If you collect UniveX cameras, or if you’re simply interested in the history of amateur photography in the first half of the 20th century, you owe it to yourself to read this book. Cynthia spent a great deal of time and effort interviewing some of the last surviving employees of the company in order to produce her book. Having said that, in regard to this blog, when I refer to UniveX history, generally the facts are hers but the analysis is mine. So don’t blame Cynthia for my opinions on the engineering or marketing decisions made by the company – she may not agree with me. I have studied many of Universal’s patents and most of their literature in order to arrive at some very strong opinions about how the company managed to squander its intellectual property, turning a potentially world-class enterprise into a failure and a laughingstock. In any case, let’s continue the story….
The Mercury Model CC (see previous post for history) boasted a shutter speed of 1/1000 second, and was recognized as the fastest candid camera in America. But outside the U.S., there was a faster one – the Contax II, manufactured by Zeiss Ikon. Galled by the fact that the German made camera boasted a shutter speed of 1/1250 second, Universal Camera Corporation management decided to up the ante. They charged the engineering department to build a faster version of the Mercury’s rotary shutter, to outdo the Germans and thus produce the fastest camera in the world.
There is no documentation of what George Kende and his compatriots thought about this contest of one-upmanship. Considering the course of action they were forced to take, I suspect they protested loudly, because the method chosen to increase the Mercury’s shutter speed was not sound from an engineering standpoint. To understand why this is true, you need to understand the workings of the shutter. It’s simply a round circular blade with a pie-shaped opening that can be varied in width. The blade turns at a constant speed, and the opening allows light to pass through as it passes in front of the film plane. A wide opening produces a longer exposure, and a narrower one produces a shorter exposure. The speed of the blade, however, is constant – only the width of the opening is variable.
Logically, then, the way to obtain a faster shutter speed would be to employ a narrower opening. In fact, one of the preliminary patent drawings created for the original rotary shutter design bears a handwritten note reading “1-1/2o = 1/2000 sec”. So , the faster setting could have been acheived by modifying the design of the original shutter and adding a narrower setting to those already in use. But the cost of doing so would have been significant. Design and prototyping of the original Mercury had cost in excess of $100,000, and most of that cost related to the shutter design. Making a new shutter would also have required time, and the Universal execs wanted a solution now.
So, a very simple solution was employed. They simply increased the spring tension, which in turn, increased the blade speed. This, of course, increased the shutter speed at all settings, not just the top one. The new top speed of the shutter was 1/1500 second, the fastest in the world. In addition to tinkering with the spring, of course, a new shutter speed knob had to be made and calibrated, and a new back plate for the “hump” carried the designation “Model CC-1500”. The new “Superspeed” camera made a big splash upon its introduction in 1939. The two 35mm Tricor normal lenses, f/3.5 and f/2.7, were available for the Superspeed, but the crowning achievement was a new Wollensak Hexar f/2.0 (mentioned in the previous post as a later option for all Mercuries) high speed lens to complement the world’s fastest shutter. The Superspeed sold for $65.00 thus equipped – not so affordable compared to the original $25.00 Mercury Model CC. Even so, about 3000 were sold in 1939.
But the Superspeed was destined to be built for only one year; in fact, it appears that there may have been only one production run. Why? The reason is probably that, by taking the “cheap and dirty” approach to producing the high-speed shutter, Universal had dramatically impaired its reliability. The springs fatigued very easily; some broke, some lost their temper and softened. Today, a fully functioning Superspeed is pretty rare. Lots of them have broken springs, and lots more have slow shutters because of the overtensioning to which they were subjected. I had the good fortune to obtain a really clean, working copy of the Superspeed a number of years ago – the shutter still works, and seems to be up to snuff. I am, however, afraid to put it to much use, for fear of breaking the spring. A side-by-side comparison between Models CC and CC-1500 will clearly show the faster rotation rate of the shutter blades on the Superspeed.
I could have titled this post “How Crappy Engineering Screwed Up the Most Innovative Camera Design of Its Day,” but I didn’t, because I don’t really blame the engineers for what happened to the Mercury Superspeed. I believe that the decision to cut corners and rush the product to market as cheaply as possible typifies management decisions made throughout the unfortunate history of the Universal Camera Corporation.
Note: Sharp-eyed readers will have noted that two of the photos in my previous post on the Model CC actually depict a Model CC-1500. It’s otherwise identical to the Model CC, and it’s in better shape, so I used it as a generic example of the Mercury I.