THE RUSSELL CAMERA

    Russell Camera Inc., New York                                1918-1921

 

Apparently (or possibly) unnamed at the time, The Russell Camera was introduced in the March 9, 1918 issue of Moving Picture World.  This recently discovered article sheds more light into the origins of this short-lived camera, its operation and its name:

 

   

   

                                                                                     From The Moving Picture World, March 9, 1918

 

This professional 35mm motion picture camera was conceived and built by New York machinist George R. Stringham.

 

The article above states that Stringham "of the Motion Picture Specialty Company, 607 West 43rd Street, New York, has presented a new model of professional camera containing many features which are not usually found in the present professional models on the market." R.L. Polk's 1915 Trow New York Copartnership and Corporation Directory, Boroughs of Manhattan and Bronx, Volume 63 for the Year Commencing September 1, lists the  "Motion Picture Specialty Corporation, (N.Y.) Thos. Russell Brown Pres, Hy R. Johnston Treas. Capital $10,000  Directors: Thos. Russell Brown, Jas. S. Brown, Jr., Hy R. Johnston 607 W. 43rd". This seems to suggest the camera was named for the company's president Thomas Russell Brown, that the Motion Picture Specialty Company (or Corporation) may have been the financial backer and that George Stringham as the designer and machinist was the technical end of the enterprise.

 

The Motion Picture Specialty Corporation is listed in 1918 as advertising films in R.L. Polk & Co.'s Trow General Directory of New York City Embracing the Boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx, 1918, Volume 131.   Per R.L. Polk & Co.'s Trow General Directory of New York City Embracing the Boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx, 1920-1921, Volume 132, the Motion Picture Specialty Corporation is no longer listed.  So far, no listings have been found for Russell Camera Inc.

 

The Motion Picture Specialty Company is believed to have preceded Russell Camera Inc., based on the 1920's patent dates molded into the casing of the camera featured here.  Photos of the first Russell Camera shown in the article reflect the essence of the camera's design. But it differs both cosmetically and mechanically on a few points from the later example featured here. Readily apparent is the outer casing, appearing to lack the molded patterns seen on the later model, the strap-style door hinges versus the later piano-style and the engine-turned magazine compartments that now exhibit an etched-line pattern. Also, the photo of the right side film magazine compartment has what appears to be numerous holes revealing the interior mechanism. If they were indeed openings, they no longer appear on the later model seen here, replaced by a solid plate. The article also indicated a forthcoming improvement to the next model, wherein the film could be slid aside internally at the gate, being replaced by a section of ground glass. This would permit fine focusing in low light conditions without having to open the camera's casing. The later Russell Camera shown here has this feature, which swings the film away from the gate 90 degrees, allowing the ground glass focusing frame to swing into position. The article also states the camera's magazines and casing as being constructed of Bakelite or a Bakelite composite.  Until now, the few references found for the Russell indicate it was constructed of Condensite.

 

Moving Picture Age, Volume IV, No. 5, May, 1921, has a brief article on the Russell Camera titled "New Camera Claims Many Advantages":

           

                        From Moving Picture Age, Volume IV, No. 5, May, 1921

 

The camera shown here with a 400-foot capacity coaxial magazine was manufactured by Russell Camera Inc., New York, probably between mid-to-late 1918 and 1921.  This is based upon its known introduction, its patents and the few references and advertisements found.  The camera's functional design is similar to that of the Debrie Parvo and Wilart's coaxial magazine camera of the 1919-1922 period.  For more information on this Wilart, look under the "Cinematography" section of this website.

 

The full extent of the Motion Picture Specialty Company's involvement in the Russell, and George Stringham's relationship with the company over the course of camera's timeline unknown. But in whatever capacity, it appears that Stringham was manufacturing and marketing the camera from the onset. This is alluded to in the article above from March 9, 1918, noting that Stringham could outfit the camera with any device desired by the cameraman and that the camera was "tailor-made" since the shop's limited facilities only permitted them to be made on special order.  By the time the Russell was introduced, Stringham was already known for repairing and modifying motion picture cameras, and his name has been found on other camera components.

Other than the introductory article at top, the earliest reference I've found for the Russell Motion Picture Camera is an advertisement for "George R. Stringham, Precision Machinist, 47 West 42nd Street, New York", in Cinema News, Volume 3, Issue No. 2 for May 1919.   The ad states "The Russell Motion Picture Camera Demonstrated":

 

 

Per references found describing the camera, the Russell also featured a recessed taking lens, through-the-lens focusing, a retractable crank, a dissolving shutter adjustable for any angle between 170-0 degrees and a unique outer case and film magazines constructed of Condensite.  Condensite was a phenolic resin developed by Thomas Edison's chief chemist J.W. Aylesworth in 1912.  Along with Dyer and Kirk Brown, Aylesworth established the Condensite Company which merged with two other entities to form the Bakelite Corporation in 1922.  Condensite (or Bakelite), incorporated for its durability and to lighten weight, further enhanced the Russell's compactness at 9-1/2" tall, 7-7/8" wide and 11-1/8" long.  The camera's weight of 20 lbs. when loaded with a 400-foot roll of film, compared favorably to the Mitchell Standard and the Bell & Howell 2709, both of which weighed approximately 27 to 29 lbs. unloaded.

 

The camera itself is labeled "Russell Camera, Inc., New York", citing three patent dates, with other patents pending:

 

These dates referenced three existing patents, and a fourth patent was uncovered.  All were granted to George R. Stringham for the Russell Camera's design: 

 

March 16, 1920 (Patent No. 1,334,057)    Source:  Google Patents

 

August 24, 1920 (Patent No. 1,350,683)    Source:  Google Patents

 

December 14, 1920 (Patent No. 1,362,199)    Source:  Google Patents

 

Research revealed a fourth patent:

December 28, 1920 (Patent No. 1,363,822)    Source:  Google Patents

 

The first patent was assigned to Theo B. Lyon, Mamaroneck, New York and W. Wallace Lyon, White Plains, New York, Trustee.  The last three patents were assigned to Martin V. Kelley, Trustee, New York.  Research has yet to determine the business entity(s) these individuals and trustees were related to, or their relationship to George R. Stringham.

The Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, Volume Eight, April 14-16, 1919, Philadelphia, describes the Russell Camera and its operation in detail.  Based on this, and the article of introduction at top, the Russell was being manufactured prior to issuance of the known patents. Russell Camera Inc. is also listed in the Editor and Publisher for December 4, 1920.

 

The camera and its operation are outlined in The Cinema Handbook by Austin Celestin Lescarboura for 1921:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Russell shown here is equipped with an F3.5 Goerz Hypar lens believed original to the camera, a veeder (footage) counter, four film magazines, its back focusing viewing tube, a Newton-style viewfinder and its original crank and strap.  Opening the film magazine compartments and the rear access door, reveals the etched and engine-turned finishes that enhance the camera's appearance and reflect the pride in its manufacture.

I'm yet to determine its purchase price, but it's safe to say the Russell had stiff competition from well established camera makers and other upstarts of the period. The Mitchell Standard 35mm was rather expensive, being introduced around 1920. However, Bell & Howell's 2709 had already been in production for some six years prior and could readily be found on the used market at a somewhat more reasonable price.  Although not sharing identical features across the board, other cameras such as the Universal and the Parvo provided major competition during this era. Despite the camera's innovative features and construction, the Russell quickly came and went.

 

Although this is the only example I've ever encountered, a few may reside in museums or other private collections, and there's probably a few others yet to be discovered. Being produced for maybe three or four years on a special order basis, relatively few cameras were ever built.

As early 35mm motion picture cameras go, the Russell can easily be considered very rare.