The Kardon Camera; An American Tale

The history of the Kardon camera is a story of forgotten American genius. The Kardon camera, manufactured in several variations from 1945-'54 represents an important American contribution to the then-state-of-the-art "miniature" camera. And it represents Peter Kardon's patriotic effort to answer to the US military's need for a high-quality 35mm camera during World War II. The Kardon camera was a technical success, and a financial failure, whose last remnants now, after 60 years, reside in my camera shop.

The story begins during World War II. The US Signal Corps needed a supply of high-quality 35mm cameras. At war with Germany, it was clearly impossible to purchase cameras manufactured there. In 1941, authorized by the Alien Property Custodian Act, the US government seized control of E. Leitz Company in New York and directed them to manufacture Leica IIIa cameras for them, assuming that a facility capable of repairing that camera also could manufacture them. By '43 it was apparent Leitz was not up to the task.

In stepped Peter Kardon, a naturalized US citizen originally from Odessa, Russia. Kardon already had achieved a reasonable degree of business success as president of the Premier Instrument Corporation. According to one photographic historian, the personal risks Kardon took for the creation and manufacture of the Kardon camera were motivated by his desire to assist the nation that took him in as an immigrant in '05 and that enabled him some degree of success for he and his family. In other words, it was his inspired payback for his realization of the American Dream.

As a subcontractor to E. Leitz, Kardon eventually produced the first "American Made Leica Camera" as it was called. The contract called for a production run of 6000 American-made Leica IIIa models, utilizing production equipment from E. Leitz. The effort immediately encountered two major obstacles. First, the production equipment provided by E. Leitz was in such poor condition it could neither be used nor serviced. Second, detailed analysis of the IIIa showed that its design didn't allow for mass manufacture. Rather, each piece required hand adjustments from experienced craftspersons. This would not do for mass manufacture or for easy repair in the field. So, Kardon embarked on the task of designing a new camera whose interchangeable parts would meet these requirements.

This improved design capable of mass manufacture is the first significant contribution by Kardon to the photographic world. The effort involved the talent of many Kardon family members (Leonard, Bernard, Nathan, and Frances Kardon, and son-in-law Irving Gross). They collectively succeeded in designing and producing a Leica IIIa-based camera of easier assembly and service than that of Leitz in Germany. The completed camera featured a seasoned and well regarded 47mm f/2 Ektar lens of American design and manufactured by Kodak, set upon a Kardon designed and assembled lens mount. It was an improved Leica of American manufacture.

However, the technical success was not met with business success. Kardon had only recently delivered production samples for the government when his contact was canceled in '45 upon the victory of Allied Forces over Japan. It was financial disaster for the company, only having recouped 10 percent of its total investment.

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