While I am not privy to Kodak internal planning documents of the 1930s, judged from its expanding product line, the effort to produce world-class cameras--the Super Kodak Six-20, the Medalist and the Ektra--was an experiment at Kodak to see if it could extend its traditional market and do that in a way that extended its reputation and its profits. WWII intervened in these plans and while the Medalist was very successful as a military camera, the other two models were not. A major reason for the success of the Medalist was that apart from its metal lens tube design, the Medalist was not a significant departure from tradidtional Kodak technology; it was just a very well designed and manufactured fixed lens design--and above all, a very sturdy design.

Kodak had only started designing and building 35mm cameras in the mid-30s; the first 35mm Kodak was the Retina, designed and built in the recently acquired Nagel factory in Germany. The first American built Kodak 35mm was the Kodak 35, not a particularly auspicious beginning, and with the kludgy addition of a rangefinder to the Kodak 35 in 1939, there was nothing in the Kodak product line to suggest that Kodak could design and produce anything like the elegant and mechanically advanced Ektra of 1941. Patent records for the Ektar design go back as far as 1936 with Joseph Mihalyi's clear vision of what the Ektra should be:


Rangefinders were one of Mihalyi's specialties and with a 104mm base, the Ektra's was designed to accurately focus a 254mm lens. The rangefinder was of the split image type with adjustable magnification. Although not combined with the viewfinder, the viewing windows were closely spaced. While current 35mm users will find many Ektra features that seem surprisingly modern in this 70+ year old design, the viewfinder will not be one of them; it is dark and tunnel-like when compared to modern viewfinders and even to it sister of 1941, the Medalist, but then the Medalist had to support only one fixed-length lens. The gear-toothed ring in the lens port allows the use of the large wheel at the bottom of the body for fine focus adjustments or focusing can be done with the knurled lens ring.

The later cutaway photo published in the Kodak Reference Manual gives a more impressive internal view than the patent drawing. Kodak's long base rangefinder design followed a similar feature on the Contax by at least four years in patents and nine years in production. In the cutaway image, you can also see the mechanism for zooming the viewfinder and the wheel on the far right that controls the diopter adjustment for the viewfinder, which was parallax-corrected as the lens was focused. You can also see in this image that the rangefinder used prisms, like the Contax, rather than the less-reliable mirror arrangement used by the early Leicas.

Ektra shutters have a notoriously bad reputation for reliability. Since I don't collect old Leicas, Canons or Contaxes, I don't know if most cameras of this age have similar problems. I had an Extra shutter rebuilt in the 1970s and it is still reliable, but it has been coddled since then. As far as I know, the Ektra was the first and last Kodak camera to have had a focal plane shutter, but until the mid-1960s, the Ektra was the only 35mm that Kodak had made with interchangeable lenses. From its beginning Kodak built its consumer camera business on the low end of the market and even when it entered the 35mm market, it did so with the fixed lens Retina at a much lower cost point than its German competitors with interchangeable lenses. Interchangeable lenses increased design and production costs considerably and Kodak was very resistant to going in that direction, so its 35mm cameras were wedded to the fix lens/between-the-lens shutter design.

Based on the patent application considerable design work was invested in the shutter. That the shutter was among the last mechanisms submitted for patent (June 1938) may give some clue to problems in its design. (Complete patent record )

and Kodak was proud to include a cutaway of the Ektra shutter in the first Kodak Reference Manual.

Unfortunately war time markets and the Ektra's very high price kept production low and apparently improvements were not made, or perhaps problems only developed after long term use. It would be interesting to know if changes in shutter design were made to the Ektra II.

The Ektra's film back was, I believe, a first. Leica screw mount bodies required loading film, very inconveniently, through the bottom of the camera. Contax improved on this with a body with a removable back, which did improve film loading convenience and allowed the use of accessory backs for glass plates, but the Ektra was the first camera to employ a full magazine back that could be interchanged along with the film cassettes. It had the additional advantage of having a rapid film advance.




12/27/2010 15:29