THE PRECISION TRIPOD
Motion Picture Apparatus Company, Inc., New York 1913 - 1917
The Precision Tripod for professional cinema work was manufactured by the Motion Picture Apparatus Company, Inc. of New York City. With its cast metal construction, exposed gearing and a boldly-lettered lacquered brass casing, it was the visual pinnacle of silent film era motion picture tripods.
Believed to have been established in late 1913, ads for the Motion Picture Apparatus Company began appearing August 2, 1913 in The Moving Picture World. The ad below reflects the company's name as the "Motion Picture Apparatus Company, Inc.", stating that "Precision Tripods and Accessories Always in Stock":
From The Moving Picture World, August 2, 1913 Source: The Internet Archive
The company's name also appears in Trow's General Directory of the Boroughs of Manhattan and Bronx, City of New York Vol. CXXVIL for the Year Ending August 1, 1914. As stated on a maker's tag seen on one of their later tripods, they were "Manufacturers and Importers of Studio and Laboratory Equipment".
The Precision Tripod featured here is believed to be the earliest model offered by company during their first four years. By April 12, 1917, their new "Ball-Bearing Tripod" was introduced, also called the "Precision Ball-Bearing Tripod" as seen on the maker's tag of another known example.
From Motion Picture News' Studio Directory for April 12, 1917 Source: The Internet Archive
R.L. Polk & Co.'s 1915 Trow New York Copartnership and Corporation Directory, Boroughs of Manhattan and Bronx, lists the Motion Picture Apparatus Company with Peter N. Housley as president, Robert G. Hastings, Secretary and Hy R. Nostrand, Treasurer, with Capital, $2,000 with "further inf unattainable" and an address at 810 Broadway.
R.L. Polk & Co.'s 1918-19 Trow New York Copartnership and Corporation Directory, Boroughs of Manhattan and Bronx, lists the Motion Picture Apparatus Company with Peter N. Housley as president, Robert G. Hastings, Secretary and Hy R. Nostrand, Treasurer, with Capital, $1,000 and an address at 110 W. 32nd. The company's address would change several times during its existence. Robert Hastings served as Agent for the company and his name can be found in advertisements and stamped on the Precision Tripod's head. Beyond trade publication ads and a few other references, very little has been found regarding the company's history or its founders. Two patents were located, neither of which apply to the Precision Tripod's design, however both were assigned to the Motion Picture Apparatus Company, Inc. Other than what follows, details regarding the relationships of these individuals to the company have yet to be found.
Patent No. 1,340,557 was granted to Edward J. Pennypacker of Los Angeles, California on May 18, 1920 for a "Shutter Mechanism for Motion Picture Cameras". Pennypacker (1878-September 16, 1941), was a mechanical engineer who was granted at least six other non-photographic related patents. In 1910, he was the superintendent at Baker Iron Works, Los Angeles. Pennypacker is interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, seeming to suggest he had some connection with the motion picture industry:
Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Patent No. 1,356,903 was granted to Sydney Borman of Jersey City, New Jersey on October 26, 1920 for a "Cleaning and Polishing Machine for Moving Picture Films":
Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
The 1940 U.S. Census lists Peter N. Housley, age 57 of Ridgewood, New Jersey as a salesman in the photographic supply industry.
Robert G. Hastings (c1886-1939) died March 17, 1939, New York.
The Precision Tripod example seen here is missing its pan and tilt crank handles, and the tilt assembly consisting of the crank handle shaft, pinion gear and the casting extensions which retained the shaft. Another example of this tripod head found on the internet, displays the same broken castings, suggesting they may have been undersized or that they proved vulnerable under field use as the mechanism was unprotected. By the time the Precision Ball-Bearing Tripod was introduced, the tilt function's hand crank assembly was redesigned, enclosing the shaft and gears within the head's casing to eliminate the potential for damage.
The head's casing is inscribed "Motion Picture Apparatus Co., Inc., Precision Tripod, R. Hastings Agt. No. 495, New York, U.S.A.". The missing crank handles and the aforementioned damage aside, the unit is remarkably complete with what appears to be its original legs (or "sticks") and hardware.
The Precision Tripod's style represented the two-crank head design that had been introduced earlier by Pathe (1911 at least) and several other manufacturers. It's the quintessential unit when paired with cameras such as the Bioscope, Moy & Bastie, Gennert, Pathe, Prestwich No. 5 and the Williamson, some of which pre-dated the Precision Tripod by a number of years. Whether the Precision Tripod was still being offered after the Precision Ball-Bearing Tripod's introduction is undetermined, but in all likelihood it was probably discontinued in favor of the new design. The tripod looks as though it could have been built at least five years earlier. But if the company's founding and the model's 1913-1917 production span is accurate, its brief run partially explains why so few are seen today. Volume was no doubt a factor, as the few examples I've seen all have 3-digit serial numbers. This suggests that relatively few were made over the model's four year life span, which is reasonable given that most professional cinema equipment of that era was manufactured in rather limited quantities.
Photo-Era, The American Journal of Photography, May, 1915, under its events section, reported on the International Exposition of Photographic Arts and Industries. Among the exhibits were:
"Motion Picture Apparatus Company, Inc. New York City. Motion picture machines of standard types, for taking and projecting. The Moy Professional outfit; Pathe Professional Model No. 1 and No. 2; Prestwich Kine Kamera, models 4 and 5, Ernemann Professional, model B; the Precision tripod with panoramic top." It's unclear whether this suggests that a tilting table was not yet offered. If so, this would narrow the timeframe for the Precision Tripod shown here to sometime between May 15, 1915 and 1917.
"Chas. G. Willoughby, New York City. "Square Deal" photographic supplies; reliable second-hand material a specialty. Equipment and lenses of all American and European makers. Motion-picture apparatus of best makes. Photo-bargains in abundance."
From The American Cinematographer October, 1922
By 1923, Current History, A Monthly Magazine of the New York Times Vol XVII October 22-March 1923, showed the Motion Picture Apparatus Company's address as 118 W. 44th Street, New York City. As reflected in the August, 1922 ad below, the company was still offering a "Precision Ball-Bearing Tripod". Although the name is the same, it's presumed to be referencing the Debrie Parvo tripod shown in the ad, depicted with the Parvo. The Debrie tripod most likely incorporated ball bearings in its assembly by that time. The company was now under ownership management of Willoughby Corporation:
From The American Cinematographer, August, 1922
In December 1917, the Motion Picture Apparatus Company having previously supplied material to the U.S. Army Signal Corps Photographic Division, was engaged by them to develop several models of an automatic aerial camera. When a funding dispute arose, the contract's legitimacy was questioned and the Motion Picture Apparatus Company lost its court claim without compensation in April, 1920. This financial loss, and its impact on any future business with the U.S. Army, no doubt foreshadowed the Willoughby takeover.
Willoughby's, established in 1898 and still in business today, once billed itself as the "World's Largest Camera and Supply House". At one point Willoughby's shared the same 110 W. 32nd Street address with the Motion Picture Apparatus Company. Heading into the late 1920's, single-handle friction and gyroscopic heads were introduced, becoming the industry standard by the early 1930's.
Motion Picture Apparatus Company's ads featuring the Debrie motion picture camera, began appearing in The American Cinematographer in August, 1922. By May, 1924, the company was the U.S. and Canadian Agent for Debrie cameras. Their last ad in The American Cinematographer appeared in December, 1925, and it's presumed that the Motion Picture Apparatus Company was dissolved (or absorbed into Willoughby's) shortly thereafter. Willoughby's would continue to market Debrie apparatus, such as a new finder called the "Visographe". By July, 1927, Willoughby's ads now state that they are the U.S. and Canadian Agents for Debrie:
From The American Cinematographer July, 1927
For me, the Precision Tripod has always been one of those "Holy Grail" items, and some of that enamor probably shines through here. Mechanically, its construction was similar to many other heads of the era, and I can't say that it was necessarily superior to any of them. And as was noted earlier, in truth, it may have been more prone to damage because of its exposed design. But nevertheless, its flashy appearance and that early Hollywood "look", just says it all.
Tripods and other motion picture support equipment from the first two decades of the 20th century, are many times almost as rare (if not rarer in some cases) as the cameras themselves. And it's why apparatus like this is so coveted by collectors and enthusiasts seeking to assemble a period-correct outfit.
For more information on the Motion Picture Apparatus Company's Precision Ball-Bearing Tripod, look for it under the "Cinematography" section of this website.
From The American Cinematographer, July, 1923
From The American Cinematographer November, 1923
From The American Cinematographer December, 1923
From The American Cinematographer March, 1924
From The American Cinematographer May, 1924
From The American Cinematographer October, 1924
From The American Cinematographer March, 1925
From The American Cinematographer April, 1925
From The American Cinematographer June, 1925
From The American Cinematographer October, 1925
From The American Cinematographer December, 1925