Bell & Howell Company, Chicago, Illinois                        1912 - 1958








The Bell & Howell Company was formed in Wheeling, Illinois in 1907, by Donald Joseph Bell, a motion picture promoter and projectionist and Albert Summers Howell, an engineer and machinist. Both had previously worked together, repairing motion picture machines and this would continue under the new company.  During this period, Chicago, New Jersey, New York and to some degree Jacksonville, Florida, became the earliest areas of motion picture production before the migration of filmmakers to Hollywood.

Albert Howell made patented improvements to the frame registration mechanism on George K. Spoor's Kinodrome projector (Patent No. 862,559 dated August 6, 1907), which had originally been built by Donald Bell for Spoor about 1897/1898:



                                           Source:  U.S. Patent and Trademark Office



                                            Source:  U.S. Patent and Trademark Office


Per an article in The International Photographer, April,1929, the company's first hand-cranked 35mm motion picture camera was referred to as their "Box Model Camera". Equipped with 200-foot internal magazines, it was built in late 1907 and sent to Essanay Studios.  Essanay, founded that same year in Chicago by George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson, was originally known as the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company. On August 10, 1907, the name was changed to Essanay, the name derived from Spoor's and Anderson's first initials "S" and "A".  Constructed with a wooden body typical of professional cameras of the day, only eight were reportedly built:



        Bell & Howell's first 35mm motion picture camera, the Model A from 1907


As to why the camera's construction changed, Jack Fay Robinson's book, Bell & Howell Company, A 75 Year History states that "The first Bell & Howell cinematograph camera was produced in 1910.  It was made entirely of wood and covered with black leather. The following year, moving picture explorers, Martin and Osa Johnson, wrote that their camera had been destroyed by termites and mildew in Africa." This version of the story has been challenged, by the suggestion that the Johnsons hadn't traveled to Africa before 1920.  Whatever the real truth, this first model was short-lived and Bell & Howell was determined to build a more indestructible camera.  As seen below, Martin Johnson would go on to use the new 2709:



        From The American Cinematographer, October, 1931


The new 2709 B was made of cast aluminum weighing about 27 pounds, with the now familiar "Mickey Mouse ears" shaped film magazines. The silhouette of these style magazines, whether mounted on a Bell & Howell or a Mitchell, is and forever will be Hollywood's most iconic symbol.


Below, Jackson Rose, ASC, is shown with one of the very first 2709's.  The first 2709's (reportedly twelve) were produced with heavier turrets and a number of other design differences that would change on subsequent cameras.  This heavier turret is evident in the clipping below:



         From The International Photographer, April, 1929



Introduced by 1912, the 2709 incorporated such state of the art features as a 4-lens turret, permitting the quick change of lenses simply by rotating the desired one into position. It also featured a film registration system whereby each frame was drawn in by a claw mechanism and held steady by the gate during exposure. Equipped with its standard Unit-I shuttle movement, it was also offered with an Ultra-Speed Attachment  (high-speed movement).  Later on, the 2709 DD model made specifically for high-speed work, came standard with this movement which was capable of 200 frames per second.  Reportedly, only twelve of these Model DD's were built.


The 2709 was also equipped with a unique sliding-rack tripod mount.  This feature permitted the camera to be slid over, so that critical focusing could take place through the selected taking lens in its filming position. The selected lens was then rotated 180 degrees, now being set in the taking position when the camera was slid back.  




            From The American Cinematographer, February 1, 1922




Through the years, many changes were made to the 2709 by Bell & Howell and by others, all aimed at improving the camera in a variety of applications.  With the advent of the Mitchell Camera and the Mitchell Standard 35mm's, many of Mitchell's components such as viewfinders and matte boxes were found to be easier to use and many were adapted to fit the 2709 over time.  One example was Bell & Howell's original viewfinder for the 2709. When viewing through it, the image was inverted as one would experience when using a still view camera. Introduced later on, Mitchell's Erect Image Viewfinder reversed the image to correct this problem and it became very popular with 2709 cameramen.  Charlie Chaplin used the Bell & Howell extensively, eventually equipping his 2709's with Mitchell viewfinders and other components.


The 2709 was hand-cranked at 16 frames per second, which was the industry standard at that time. In 1920, Bell & Howell introduced their Cinemotor as an option to hand-cranking.  The Cinemotor attached at the camera's rear, as seen below in a 1923 advertisement:


                  From the American Cinematographer August, 1923



With the Cinemotor and the Ultra Speed Attachment, higher frame speeds could be realized.  Later on, improvements were also made to the lens angle indicator.  Bell & Howell's original footage counter with tiny graduations, was difficult to read and of limited use.  With the advent of Veeder counters that could be mounted in conjunction with the crank handle or to the motor port at rear, film production and documentation was greatly enhanced.  Special effects, such as a double exposures in transitioning from one scene to another, could now be achieved with a higher degree of accuracy. This saved time, reduced costs and resulted in less wasted film.  Larger capacity 1,000-foot magazines would also become available.

Most 2709's contain Bell & Howell's trademark badge with the company's name, serial number and model number, sometimes accompanied by another plate noting additional patents.  Today, these two plates help in establishing the date of manufacture, and to whom the camera was originally sold.


The camera's serial number can also be found stamped on the camera's top, beneath where the film magazine mates to the body.  Having the serial number in several areas helps to reaffirm a camera's identity and provides at least one number should the factory badge be missing.  Reproduction badges for Bell & Howell equipment are available, although some lack the refinement of a factory original:

                Reproduction Bell & Howell manufacturer's tag


Original Bell & Howell manufacturer's tag   (note the more refined lettering)


The 2709 quickly became the new Hollywood standard around 1916, having eclipsed the equally famous Pathe Professional 35mm then in widespread use since about 1908.  By 1919, almost all Hollywood production was being undertaken with the 2709.  It was said to have cost about as much as an average home in 1918, making it available to the select few wealthy enough to afford one.  Charlie Chaplin was among those that purchased the 2709 (No. 227) and his Charlie Chaplin Studios (1919-1953) would go on to own at least four of them.  Famous actress, producer and studio owner Mary Pickford purchased No. 230. The 2709's reputation and reliability was second to none, but with the introduction of the Mitchell Standard 35mm and the transition from silent movies to "talkies", the 2709's inherently noisy film gate became a problem for sound production.  Efforts were made to silence the 2709, either by encasing it within a sound-proofed booth, or by wrapping the camera in blankets referred to as "barneys". Eventually, most studios transitioned to the Mitchell 35mm which had a quieter movement.  Later on, some Bell & Howell and Mitchell cameras would substitute metal gears with phenolic (laminated resin composite) gears to further reduce the sound.  Many Mitchell's were "blimped" by encasing them within a sound retardant metal clamshell.  Even as the 2709's popularity waned in Hollywood, it still remained in use for animation and special effects work well into the 1980's.  For all its improvements and modifications, the camera's basic design remained virtually unchanged over the course of its approximate 46-year production run. 


The example shown here, Bell & Howell 2709 B, Serial No.797, no longer retains its original footage counter.  It's equipped with the Unit I shuttle movement, a 170-degree shutter, a Mitchell viewfinder and a 2709-compatible motor that is unidentified as to maker.  As shown in Bell & Howell's sales record for Serial No. 797 shown below, this 2709 was sold to Paramount Famous Lasky, Times Square, New York, New York, on September 29, 1927:



        My Sincere Thanks to Michael Madden of for providing a copy of the factory record for this 2709




The Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation had just been established in September, 1927, when this camera was purchased by them.  The studio would operate under this name for three years, after which time the name changed to Paramount Publix Corporation.  By 1936, the studio would be known as Paramount Pictures, Inc., known today as Paramount Pictures Corporation or just Paramount.









Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation's West Coast Studios....the building still stands today



                                     Paramount Pictures Bronson Gate


A plate affixed to the 2709 featured here, has patent dates of September 17, 1912 ("Motion Picture Machine") and February 13, 1917 ("Film Magazine for Cinematograph or Motion Picture Cameras").  These patents covered the 2709's movement and a safety gate that automatically closed, when the camera's side door was opened, preventing the exposure of film in the magazine or the entrance of dust.

This 2709 B seen in the opening photo with a 400-foot magazine, is mounted on a period-correct Bell & Howell tripod from the 1920's.  Shown below is the same camera mounted with three different film magazines to illustrate their size differences:

                              200' Film Magazine


                                 400' Film Magazine

              V-Type Bi-Pack Adaptor with two 400-foot Film Magazines

                             1000' Film Magazine



Approximately 1,225 cameras of all models of the 2709 were manufactured, and very few exist as originally built.  Whether original or modified, the total number of survivors is unknown.  But the 2709 in any form is very scarce, with the earliest models being extremely rare.  Prices in the 1990's remained high, with the camera being both usable and collectible.  Today, the 2709 is used more as a movie prop or in a very limited production capacity. Some 35mm motion pictures continue to be made, but with the film industry's transition to digital, the 2709 has become one of the last vestiges of Hollywood's "Golden Age".




                                            Bell & Howell letterhead 1915






                           From The International Photographer, May, 1929




                                              1000' Film Magazine









         Bell & Howell manufacturer's tag from the 1000' film magazine above





                                    Source:  U.S. Patent and Trademark Office




                                      Source:  U.S. Patent and Trademark Office




                                             Footage (Veeder) counter     (earlier production)












                           Footage (Veeder) counter      (later production)





               Ultra-Speed Attachment   (high-speed movement)    









            Unidentified cameraman with a Bell & Howell 2709 and what may be the earliest version of Bell & Howell's tripod and head, probably taken in the mid-to-late teens or the early 1920's



            Mack Sennett with his mother, Catherine Foy Sinnott, June 27, 1923 standing next to a Bell & Howell 2709

            Door-mounted maker's tags are generally seen on earlier models, versus mounted to the back of the camera's body on later production cameras




Bell & Howell 2709 on the set of La Boheme 1926, with left to right, Cinematographer Hendrik Sartov, Director King Vidor, Producer Irving Thalberg and Lillian Gish




Charlie Chaplin filming The Gold Rush in Truckee, California, 1925 with a group of Bell & Howell 2709's.  Chaplin's primary cameraman Roland "Rollie" Totheroh with the beard, dark sweater and knitted cap is seen just to the left behind Chaplin



Charlie Chaplin with a Bell & Howell 2709. The camera is equipped with a 1000-foot magazine, a Mitchell matte box and is mounted on the first version of Mitchell's Friction Head with a Mitchell Standard Tripod Base.  Cameraman Roland Totheroh is seen directly behind the camera to Chaplin's left.

Although undated, the photo may possibly have been taken on April 22, 1935.  It bears strong similarity to another photo taken of Chaplin from the other side of what appears to be the same 2709, also equipped with a 1000-foot magazine, a Mitchell Friction Head and what's believed to be the same Art Reeves motor drive. The other referenced photo was captioned "Actor Charlie Chaplin looks through a movie camera on April 22, 1935. He is directing, as well as acting in, a comedy tentatively titled Production No. 5."

The above photo is believed to have been taken on the set of Modern Times, during filming which took place between October 11, 1934 and August 30, 1935.




           Rudolph Valentino (seated at center) on the set of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1920, surrounded by cast, crew, a number  of Bell & Howell 2709's and one Pathe Professional at the far left


Probably mid-late 1930's panoramic photo of a cinematography school, presumably students and instructors with what appears to be 29 Bell & Howell 2709's. Many Mitchell Friction Heads (introduced 1928) can be seen, along with some earlier crank heads. Most of the cameras are equipped with only one or two lenses, which wasn't the typical 4-lens studio set-up. By the late 1920's/early 1930's as sound pictures were now being made, the Bell & Howell 2709 had been eclipsed by the Mitchell Standard which was quieter and equipped with features that were either easier to use or more progressive. As a result, the 2709 was relegated to second-unit, animation or other specialized work. This made the 2709 much more affordable for a school teaching the basic principles of cinematography, as by the late 1930's, a used un-silenced 2709 could be had for about 40% of the cost of a used Mitchell Standard.




Camera crew for the Fox Film western Riders of the Purple Sage (1925) with two Bell & Howell 2709's and an Akeley Camera. The photo is posed against the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range with Mount Whitney in the center background. Pictured is cameraman Daniel B. "Big Dan" Clark (leaning on the truck) with his assistant Roland Platt to the right of him. Clark was cameraman for most of Tom Mix's 1920's Fox movies and would also serve as President of the American Cinematographers Society (ASC) from 1926-1928.


The Tom Mix name and circle "M" logo can be seen on the Bell & Howell 2709 with the leather magazine cover. Also pictured is cameraman Norman Devol, with camera second from the left. This picture has no still code and was probably not used for publicity.






                             Bell & Howell Authorized Dealer Merit Award



                   Please bear with me while I set up the next shot!





This Bell & Howell 2709 was purchased on eBay, probably having been posted just minutes before I began a search of vintage photographica. Purchased as a "Buy-It-Now", it was essentially a hulk, having no crank, magazine, viewfinder or lenses. I didn't even know whether the mechanism inside was still present. But its price was a bargain and I knew it wouldn't last long. As it turned out, the camera's mechanicals were all present and in working condition.

And, just when I thought this story couldn't get any better, I already had an original 2709 hand crank and an Astro-Berlin f2.3 75mm lens for a 2709 mount.  Both these items had been sitting on a shelf, having been acquired with some 16mm movie cameras and other miscellaneous items from an estate sale some five years earlier.  I had no idea at the time, that the crank or the lens fit the 2709.  In the years since, I've been able to acquire a Veeder (film) counter, high-speed movement, various magazines, several lenses, a viewfinder, a compatible motor and a Bell & Howell tripod. Acquiring this camera was just an unbelievable find, and the beginning of what has become a great learning experience.

Interestingly, this 2709 was offered by a recycling firm located less than 50 miles from Hollywood. They picked up this 2709, along with a Mitchell camera and numerous other items, from a major motion picture studio. Likely misplaced over the years and relegated to junk, this camera narrowly escaped being processed for its scrap value.


Sadly, most of Hollywood's early motion picture equipment has ended up this way.  Hopefully, with a greater appreciation for preserving our cinematic past, less history will be lost going forward.  Sometimes, timing is everything, and finds like this are still out there waiting to be discovered.


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Professional Cinematography