Early Kodak Coupled RF
If anyone believes that coupled rangefinders appeared for the first time in the 1930's Leicas and Contax cameras, they should look at some of the Kodak folding cameras of 1916. These first CRF cameras appeared 16 years before those from Leitz and Zeiss, and almost 20 years before another Kodak CRF model (please see Miscellaneous ramblings and opinions for more on the Kodak Ansco relationship).
On April 22, 1915, John Edward Woodbury received his first of three US patents for coupled optical range finders (see GB191413421) which would soon become the basis for not only apparatus to be applied to the task of focusing cameras, but also to applications that would be put to use in WWI and WWII. John E. Woodbury was a close friend of Robert Goddard from his days at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and spent most of his professional career in his family's firm. Later in 1936 and again in 1939, Woodbury filed for and soon received US patents on additional designs for coupled range finders specifically for cameras.
Woodbury's British patent includes a drawing and a brief description of the focusing device as shown here showing the positioning of the range finder precisely as Kodak would soon adopt for the Kodak 3A Autographic Special. Presumably, this is the patent to which Brian Coe briefly refers and is the design licensed by Kodak the same year it was issued. Curiously, John E. Woodbury was the son of John C. Woodbury and the grand son of the founder of the firm that bore their family name, a firm that had long standing close ties with Ansco, Kodak's arch rival. One can only speculate as to the reason why Ansco did not opt to license the design instead. However, John E. Woodbury's sister, Margaret Woodbury Strong, was the largest single investor in Eastman Kodak at the time which leads me to infer that there is a story behind the Kodak CRF cameras that has yet to be told. Licensing of significant technological advances normally were not kept confidential as demonstrated by the wide spread publication of the $300,000 fee paid by Kodak to the inventor of Autographic film. Yet no reference to any licensing of the CRF from J.E. Woodbury has yet been found.
Although the range finder used in the early Kodak cameras was a split image design, it actually consisted of an upper and lower image which had to align with a central segment. Later designs would simplify this to a two segment split image. Later range finder designs that would be used in Kodak cameras and accessories were the product of Joseph Milhalyi and the Woodbury design and the subsequent improvements were never again used in Kodak products.
Arguably one of the most important milestones in photographic technology, the advent of the optical rangefinder mechanically coupled to a focusing mechanism (i.e. CRF) provided the photographer with a simple, rapid and accurate means to precisely focus an image immediately before shooting. None the less, this leap in technology and the appearance of the first consumer product met with only modest success.
It is odd to me that these historically important cameras from over 90 years ago do not command a premium in the collectors' market today. This may be due to the fact that the CRF Autographic Kodak cameras just look like big black Kodak folders indistinguishable from the countless run-down ratty black bellowed Kodaks that fill the tables at the flea markets. In fact, that mechanism below the lens permitted visual confirmation that the big folding bellows camera was in focus and that was a very significant technological accomplishment. It would answer an unmet need in the marketplace that would not be addressed for another 20 years. Kodak product and marketing people were indeed ahead of their time back in 1916.
The first CRF camera to be offered by any company was the Kodak No.3A Autographic Special seen here. It appeared in February 1916 and was produced through 1937. This camera was built between February 1916 and December 1925. It can be dated by the fact that it has the Kodamatic shutter and Bausch & Lomb Kodak Anastigmat f/6.3 lens. Several other shutter and lens combinations appeared on this model during its 21 year production run. Although a technological milestone in camera design, the public still preferred the point & shoot capabilities of ordinary cameras. The coupled range finder would not re-appear again on Kodak cameras for almost 20 years.
This camera produced 31/4" x 51/2" photographs on type A122 rollfilm. It originally cost $98.00 in 1917 which made them very expensive and cherished (the reason why so many have survived nearly a century). In terms of purchasing power, $98 in 1917 is equivalent to about $1550 in 2006... the price of a digital SLR.