Robot (camera)

Heinz Kilfitt designed a new 35 mm film compact camera around a new 24x24 format (instead of 24x36).This allowed 50 exposures per standard roll instead of 36 but made the camera less popular. It was a motorized camera powered by spring motors. Kodak and Agfa rejected the design and it was sold to Hans Berning who set up the Otto Berning firm.

Missing image
The Robot I Camera from Otto Berning Co.

Otto Berning got its first Robot patent in 1934. This omitted the spring motor drive, but the first production cameras had a spring drive that could turn at 4 frame/s. The body of the Robot 1 is Stainless steel. Kilfitt designed a rotary shutter with speeds from 1 to 1/500th second. The camera uses custom "Type K" cartridges, not the standard 35 mm cartridges available today. The camera has no rangefinder: it was designed for use mostly with short focal length lenses (e.g. 30 mm).

The Robot camera does one job extremely well at the sacrifice of other photographic capabilities.

The Robot I was quite small, the body measuring only 4.25 inches long, 2.5 inches high, and 1.25 inches deep. A razor sharp, zone focusing f2.8, 3.25 cm Zeiss Tessar lens added only 1/2 inch to the camera depth. It was about the size of an Olympus Stylus although it weighed about 20 ounces, approximately the weight of a modern SLR. The die cast zinc and stamped stainless steel body was crammed with clockwork. A spring motor on the top plate provided the driving force for a rotary behind the lens shutter and a sprocket film drive. The film was loaded into cassettes in a darkroom or changing bag. The cassettes appear to be based on the Agfa Memo cassette design, the now-standard Kodak 35 mm cassette not yet being popular in Germany. In place of the velvet light trap on modern cassettes, the Robot cassette used spring pressure to close the film passage. When the camera back was shut, the compression opened the passage and the film could travel freely from one cassette to another.

The rotary shutter and the film drive are like those used in cine cameras. When the photographer's finger pressed the shutter release, a light blocking shield lifted and the shutter disc rotated a full turn exposing the film through its open sector. When the finger was raised, the light blocking shield returned to its position behind the lens, the spring motor advanced the film and recocked the shutter. The action was almost instantaneous. With practice a photographer could take 4 or 5 pictures a second. Each winding of the spring motor was good for about 25 pictures or half a roll of film. Shutter speed was determined by spring tension and mechanical delay since the exposure sector was fixed. The Robot I had an exposure range of 1 to 1/500 s plus the usual provision for time exposures.

The camera had other features not specifically related to action photography. The small optical viewfinder could be rotated 90 degrees to permit pictures to be taken in one direction while the photographer was facing in another. When the viewfinder was rotated, the scene was viewed through a deep purple filter similar to those used by cinematographers to judge the black and white contrast of an image. The camera had a built in deep yellow filter which could be positioned behind the lens.

In 1938, Berning introduced the Robot II, a slightly larger camera with some improvements but still using the basic mechanism. A 40mm f2.0 Biotar was fitted as the standard lens. The film could now be fed from a standard 35 mm cassette but still required a Robot cassette for take up. The camera was synchronized for flash. The swinging viewfinder was retained but now operated by a lever rather than moving the entire housing. Both the deep purple filter and the yellow filter were eliminated in the redesign. Some versions were available with a double wind motor which could expose 50 frames. WWII stopped civilian production of the Robot but it was used as a gun camera by the Luftwaffe. An updated version of this camera fitted with a Schneider Xenon 40mm f1.9 lens was released as the Robot IIa at the end of the war.

In the late 50s, the company, now called Robot-Berning, completely redesigned the Robot and aimed it at industrial users. The stamped steel body was replace by die castings. The length stayed the same but the height increased by half an inch and the weight by 50%. The new higher top housing had a mediocre Albada finder with frames for the factory-fitted zone-focused Schneider Xenar 38 mm f2.8 lens and an accessory Tele-Xenar 75 mm f3.5 lens. The shutter was improved and slightly modified for X synch. The camera still required special take-up cassettes although it could feed from standard cassettes. Film could be now be rewound back into the feed cassette just like every other 35 mm camera. The Robot Star 25 could expose 25 frames on a single winding, the double motor Robot Star 50 could, naturally, expose 50 frames. The so-so finder made little difference to users since most cameras were sold for industrial use where the camera was fixed in position. Although most production dates from the 50-60s era, essentially the same camera without viewfinder is currently being manufactured as an industrial recording instrument.

During the Cold War, Robots had a large following in the espionage business. The small camera could be concealed in a briefcase or a handbag, the lens poking though a decorative hole. The camera could be activated repeatedly by a cable release concealed in the handle. The company was well aware of this market and produced a variety of accessories which made the camera even more suitable for covert image making.

Robot-Berning also produced enlarged versions of the Robot, the Robot Royal 24 and 36, with an incorporated rangefinder and with an autoburst mode of operation capable of shooting 6 frames per second. The camera was about the size of a Leica M3 and weighed almost 2 pounds. It was equipped with a Schneider Xenar 45 mm f2.8 lens. The Robot Royal 36 took a standard size 35mm picture but was identical to the Royal 24 in all other regards. Both cameras retained the behind-the-lens rotary shutter with speeds from 1/2 to 1/500 s.

While all agree that the Robots were superb at sequence photography, the shutter that made this possible limited other photographic activities. To reach speeds as high as 1/500 second, the inertia of the thin steel shutter disc had to be kept at a minimum. This meant a small-diameter disc with a minimal sector opening. The screw in lens mount was 26 mm diameter. The clear lens opening was only 20 mm. In contrast, Leica's mount at 39 mm was almost twice as large. Further, to permit lens interchangeability, the shutter was mounted behind the lens so the disc interrupted the expanding light cone. The maximum focal length lens that could be fitted with acceptable vignetting was the 75 mm f3.5 Tele-Xenar. Even the 40 mm f2 Biotar showed shutter disc vignetting. Lenses of up to 200 mm were supplied for long distance action photography, however they produced a circular image on the 24 x 24 mm frame. The lack of a rangefinder on the Robot and Robot Star required zone focusing of these long lenses. Every shot had to be estimated or premeasured. All of the mechanical movement made for a noisy camera, although not as noisy as some modern motor drives. For an extra fee, Robot-Berning supplied silenced versions with nylon gears for discrete use.

Within its limits the Robots did an excellent job of sequence photography. The standard 38 mm f2.8 Xenar lenses were extremely sharp, even by today's standards, and zone focusing worked well on rapid action with short focal length lenses. The reliable motor drive was as fast, if not faster, than current electrical drives and there were no batteries to run down. Flash could be used at any speed. The square frame was big enough, given modern films, for 8 x 10 or greater enlargements and 50 pictures could be taken on a standard 36 exposure roll. The cameras, especially the later ones built to industrial standards, will take much abuse and still keep functioning. They show what precision mechanical equipment is all about.


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