The Kardon Camera; An American Tale Page 2

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Kardon then turned to commercialize its camera, that is, bring it to civilian markets. The civilian Kardon was introduced in '47 at a retail price of $393 (and a wholesale price of $175). That price was undercut by rangefinder cameras from Japan and Germany that were benefiting from lower costs of labor and the financial support of the Marshall Plan. The Kardon camera was a tough retail sell.

Another government procurement "opportunity" came to Kardon in '47. The military wanted a version of the Kardon that could operate at temperature ranges from -70ÞF to +150ÞF. It had to be resistant to corrosion from moisture as well as fungus proof. And, it also had to be usable by someone wearing heavy gloves (after all, -70ÞF is very cold). Usually referred to as the "cold camera" (a misnomer since it could also work in extreme heat) production samples were delivered and successfully tested in '48, operating at a temperature of -67ÞF (this was both the ambient temperature and the temperature of the camera itself!).

This production of the "cold camera" is the other great photographic achievement of Kardon. It was the most reliable modern camera every produced. Final price to the US government for each of these individually-tested, special-purpose cameras was $377. The cold camera, like its predecessor's design, was developed at the expense of Kardon. It, too, was a technical success and a financial failure.

Two factors brought about the company's failure. In hindsight, one of the reasons for the ultimate failure of the Kardon camera rests with the contract negotiated with the US government. The price assumed Kardon would receive usable production equipment from E. Leitz. It did not, forcing the company to incur $500,000 added expense tooling up for production, expenses not covered for by the procurement contract. Second, the per unit price assumed a production run of 6000 cameras. But, by the time the contract was signed that commitment dropped to 750 units. In the end, more than 1000 individual dies were designed and produced in order to manufacture just 750 cameras. And then, of course, came the cancellation of the contract at the conclusion of World War II.

Civilian camera sales did not amount to more than a couple of thousand cameras. Government sales weren't going anywhere either. By '52 the US government turned to cameras produced offshore (primarily in Germany). The irony of this situation was not lost upon Irving Gross (who assumed some management responsibilities following Kardon's death in '48). In '55, Gross wrote a letter to various departments of the US government seeking answers as to why the US government was allowing the Kardon camera effort to fold, and why it was instead moving to offshore procurement. Hadn't Kardon met all of their requirements at great expense? Hadn't they risen to the technical challenges? Isn't it of strategic importance to retain this expertise and production capacity within our borders?

In May '55 the company got its answer in a meeting at the Pentagon, in Washington, DC. The camera's use for intelligence work, which was its primary purpose, was made impossible because the camera itself served to identify those carrying it as possible American agents. Apparently, the Kardon camera was not the choice of average tourists. The military realized that agents carrying the Kardon camera were disappearing, and the camera was partly to blame. So, instead, they purchased cameras that didn't meet all of the military's requirements but did serve the higher purpose of not compromising agents' identities.

After this meeting, the US government provided permission for Kardon to scrap the tools and dies used for production. The company realized $1500 in the sale of its huge and now useless investment.

The remnants of these efforts--production models of the civilian and "cold camera," some blueprints, some production dies and spare parts, pictures and negatives from the first Kardon camera, even canceled stock certificates and the corporate seal--now reside with me, in Phoenix, Arizona. I purchased these items in '99 from a former officer of the Premier Instrument Corporation (where Kardon was once company president).

Kardon died in '48 at the age of 62 from complications arising from an ulcer, a condition no doubt exacerbated by the unfortunate circumstances where government procurement policies and his patriotism and idealism were at odds. His camera, however, remains of great interest to collectors, and demonstrates some of America's contribution to the technology that makes great photographs possible.

Author's Note: Sources for this article include archival material in our possession, and the book The Kardon Camera Story by Jerome Katz, 1975.

You can contact the authors, Sandy Ritz and Dean Ritz, at Ritz Collectibles, 1305 E Northern Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85020; (602) 944-2112; fax: (602) 944-0123; www.ritzcam.com.

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