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Kodak Instamatic Camera Turns 50

1:16 PM, Mar 29, 2013   |    comments
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ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Eastman Kodak Co.'s revolutionary Instamatic camera, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, is defined by its name: easy to use, simply and smartly designed and ready for the fleeting moment.

Because of it, picture-taking was made more instantly possible than ever before.

The name surely worked, as did the camera. Within two years of its March 1963 launch, more than 7.5 million Instamatics had been sold worldwide starting at $16 a little more than $120 in today's dollars - said Todd Gustavson, curator of technology at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

Today, the Instamatic, when compared to modern technology, seems a relic. But its relevance is all around. It is one of the precursors of 21st-century products and ideas, from the iPad to Twitter, that grab the public's attention from the first day.

"One of my colleagues when I worked at Kodak said that the Instamatic was the smartest thing the company ever did," said Rochester resident Ron Andrews, a former senior design engineer at Kodak.

All of Kodak's cameras since the $1 Brownie was introduced in February 1900 strove to achieve George Eastman's ideal of making photography universally accessible and affordable.

For a time at least, the Instamatic reached that promised land.

As with most things at Kodak, what looked simple and inviting on the outside was the product of hard work and ingenuity in the Kodak labs.

The mostly anonymous engineers and designers who worked at Kodak and lived in and around here outdid themselves with the Instamatic.

It hit the retail market with the force of transformation.

"The trade press saw how revolutionary the Instamatic was right away. The reviews reflected that," said Gustavson, who is the curator of a special exhibit of the Instamatic, on display in its bright-yellow gift box complete with flash and batteries, just inside the entrance to the museum.

Gustavson said two things elevated the Instamatic above other cameras then on the market. It had a self-contained flash and it had a unique film canister or cartridge that, by dint of its design, solved the long-time problem of erratic film-loading. It was called the 126 cartridge or Kodapack.

It made the entire industry sit up and pay attention. And others began to work on similar versions.

"The cartridge was easy to load and remove," Gustavson said. "It was essentially foolproof. I worked in a camera store and people used to come in to ask if I could load their camera for them. They weren't sure that they were doing it right. The film cartridge took that fear away for many. Anybody could use this camera and load it in daylight."

And did.

Between 1963 and 1970, more than 50 million Instamatics were sold. The engineer who came up with the 126 cartridge was Hubert Nerwin. His name is on the patent. But he's not as celebrated as his work merits.

"Soon after the Instamatic was released, my mother bought me one, making me so happy," Albert Mach said in a post on the museum website. "No more hassling with film in the dark."

Jess Beckerman was visiting the Eastman museum along with her sons, Justin and Cole. She, and they, use digital cameras now. But she remembers her mother buying an Instamatic.

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