Classic Cameras
The Robot

Robot Star 25, kindly loaned by Stuart Heggie.

Robots are probably the most underrated and underpriced world
class cameras on the used market today. They are built to at least the same standards as Leicas and Contaxes--actually, they're tougher and more reliable--and yet you can buy a usable classic like the Star 25 illustrated for under $200, or a World War II model engraved "Luftwaffen Eigentum" (Luftwaffe property) for under $400. They tend to be more common in Europe than in the US, and prices are slightly lower in Europe as a result; but they are still not hard to come by.

One reason for their relative unpopularity is that the format of all but a few Robots is 24x24mm, and another is that early models do not accept standard cassettes: if the Robot cassettes have been lost (as has often happened, in the course of half a century or more) you can't use the camera. But I'll tell you: the only reason I didn't buy the camera illustrated, from Stuart Heggie's shop in The Borough, Canterbury, is that I like to use my classic cameras and I have too many already.

Joint Effort Construction
The Robot was designed by the ubiquitous Heinz Kilfitt. The earliest patents date from 1931, though intriguingly, what most people regard as the signature feature of the Robot, the spring-driven film wind, was added by Hans Heinrich Berning. Berning, with a little help from his father, founded Otto Berning & Co. in Schwelm (Westphalia), with production in Duesseldorf from about 1934. This was the original "vollautomatischer Kleinbildapparat" (fully automatic small format camera).

The stainless steel body was made by WMF in Geislingen a.d. Steigen; the spring film wind by clock manufacturers Bauerle from the Schwarzwald; the shutter by Gauthier of Calmbach; and lenses came mostly from Schneider and Zeiss. Two particularly unusual features of the original Robot I, of which about 30,000 were made up to 1938, were the swivelling viewfinder, which could be turned to allow shooting at right angles to the line of sight, and a built-in yellow/green filter that could be switched in and out. Weirder still was the (manually set) 24-exposure frame counter with non-consecutive numbers: as it rotated about half a turn with each shot, the sequence begins 1-14-3-16-5-18 and ends 21-10-23-12-1.

Shutter Design
The shutter is a rotary-sector type, owing a good deal to movie camera design: speeds (from 1 to 1/500 sec) are set on a dial on the front of the camera, at about 7 o'clock beside the lens mount. In order to keep the size of the camera down--and Robots really are tiny--the shutter aperture, just behind the lens, is only about 16mm (3/5") square.

Where you would normally expect to find the shutter speed dial is the huge winding knob for the spring drive, though a few late models such as the Star 25 built it into the end of the camera, as illustrated. Single-spring models--the majority of Robots--are good for about 24 or 25 exposures per wind, and the shutter must be pressed and released for each exposure: there is no "serie" option to keep firing as long as the finger is depressed. I have hit as much as 6 fps in my younger days, but most people reckon that 4 fps is more realistic.

Lens Limits
This shutter is also what limited the format to 24x24mm, and why, if you use lenses longer than about 150mm, the corners are vignetted. At least, so I'm told: I've never tried. On the other hand, the vast majority of Robots are used with 30-40mm lenses, some as fast as f/1.9 (I've never seen any faster) and the longest lenses normally encountered are 75mm. Equally, I've never seen anything wider than 30mm: I suspect this is because a Retrofocus (reverse-telephoto) design would be required. The lens mount is tiny: a 26mm screw (one inch is 25.4mm).

The lenses are scale-focused, but the very short focal lengths mean that depth of field is considerable, so this is seldom a problem: a 30mm lens on 24x24mm is roughly equivalent to just under 35mm on full frame 35mm. Given that they were some of the best lenses of their day, and that they are simple, non-Retrofocus designs, the postwar coated versions can still deliver quite remarkable quality even by modern standards.

Robot Manifestations
The II (1938 or 1939) omitted the swing-in filter and swivelling finder, and (for no apparent reason) used a different unique cassette design: this camera is the one that is quite often found in Luftwaffe guise, usually with a double-height winding knob that (logically) accommodated a double spring and allowed 40-50 shots on a single wind.

Not until the IIa (1951) could you use a standard feed cassette, and even then, you still needed a Robot take-up cassette, though the 1952 Star also permitted rewinding. The Junior (1954) is similar to a IIa but accepts only standard feed cassettes (the IIa and Star take both). As far as I know, a Star 25 is one of the last amateur-use cameras. Over the years I have owned, at various times, both Robot I and Robot II models (including Luftwaffe models), but for use, I'd recommend one of the postwar models which take standard feed cassettes: loading Robot cassettes is a hassle, as is finding more than one of them.

An entirely separate range of Robots, with conventional shutters, coupled rangefinders, and a different lens mount, existed for a while in the late 1950s and maybe even into the early 1960s. The 24x36mm model, the Robot Royal 36, is much sought after; its 24x24mm brother and their cousin the Royal II (a Royal 24 with no rangefinder) are not quite so glorious. These all offered "serie" (continuous) shooting as well as "einzel" (single shot).

"Classic" Robots with the 26mm lens mount are still in production, as far as I know, but they are used mainly as surveillance cameras and the like: at one time (possibly to this day), they were what German speed cops had in their Porsches. Many have no viewfinders, and some have eschewed the spring drive for electric drive; solenoid releases are common, too, which makes for impressively ugly cameras.

Today, with modern films, an old Robot is still a very usable camera, and great fun. The cameras from the 1950s or later are obviously more convenient, though earlier models are still excellent, especially if you can find a postwar lens. If I didn't already have what I regard as the perfect compact, high-quality "notebook" camera, my Olympus Pen W with a 25mm f/2.8 lens, I'd be very seriously tempted to buy another Robot.

Stuart Heggie is normally at his shop in The Borough in Canterbury, England, behind the Cathedral, on Fridays and Saturdays. His phone is +44 (0) 1227 470 422.