This is a Mercury II Model CX half-frame 35mm camera made by the Universal Camera Company out of New York, NY. This camera was ahead of its time and is perhaps one of the most distinct looking cameras of all time and it used a completely unique rotary focal plane shutter that allowed it to reach a maximum shutter speed of 1/1000 second.
Film Type: Half Frame 135 (35mm)
Lens: 35mm f/3.5 coated Wollensak Tricor 3 elements
Focus: 1′6″ to Infinity
Type: Scale Focus Viewfinder
Shutter: Rotary Metal Focal Plane Shutter
Speeds: T, B, 1/20 – 1/1000 seconds
Exposure Meter: None
This camera’s history is about as interesting as it’s design. The Universal Camera Corporation (sometimes also referred to by the name Univex) was founded in 1932 in New York City. They made a variety of lower end cameras that used a proprietary Univex film. Their best selling camera was the all plastic Univex Model A which sold new for 39 cents. Universal wasn’t really known as either a high quality or innovative company, and while their products weren’t bad, there were just many other alternatives for consumers to choose from.
In the 1930s, photography was still a rather expensive hobby and there was a limited need for entry level cameras for the general public. For the professional photographer, more and more of the higher end cameras were coming from Germany. German manufacturers like Leitz and Zeiss-Ikon were able to build high quality cameras with interchangeable lenses, excellent fit and finish, extremely accurate optics, and shutters with speeds as fast as 1/1250 sec. American companies however, were still making cameras with shutter speeds that topped out around 1/200 – 1/300 sec. While this was fine for casual photographers, the more demanding professional was buying their cameras from overseas.
In 1937, Universal decided it wanted to design a new style of camera that could compete with the Germans, but at a much lower price. Brand new, a Leica III cost around $200 and a Contax III was a whopping $285 which is equal to $4830 in 2014 dollars! As comparison, the Argus C3 sold for $25 making it one of the more popular American cameras of its day. So, Universal had the lofty goal of creating a camera that could compete with the Germans in terms of quality, but they wanted it to sell at the same price as the Argus.
Since Universal wasn’t known as a premiere maker of cameras, they knew they wouldn’t have the design and production capabilities to make a Leica or Contax clone, so they knew they had to come up with a much cheaper way to accomplish their goals. For this, they turned to a man named George Kende. Two years prior, in 1935 Kende had designed an 8mm motion picture camera for Universal called the Univex Cine 8. The Cine 8 had a rotary shutter that could keep spinning at a fixed speed to allow the camera to shoot at a specific frame rate necessary for motion pictures. He used this knowledge of rotary shutters in motion picture cameras to design a spring loaded rotary shutter for Universal’s newest still camera. This rotary shutter is responsible for the large curved hump on top of the camera. This hump is not just for looks, it conceals the two discs that make up the rotary shutter.
The body of this new camera, which was going to be called the Mercury CC (for Candid Camera), would continue the rotary theme on the back of the camera with a very unique looking exposure calculator. This calculator was really just a spinning disc that the photographer would move to align several points to coincide with the type of shot they were aiming for, time of day, and type of light. This exposure dial is so complex that it takes 5 full pages in the camera’s manual to explain.
Another design element that Kende wanted in the Mercury CC was in-body flash synchronization. At the time, the only type of flash sync was with external sync ports that required wires or cables to link the camera to an external flash. Kende’s design incorporated the very first use of a hot shoe on top of the camera that would directly connect the camera to the flash without any wires. The hotshoe on this camera was so well designed that Universal later added the feature to other cameras that they made. Hot shoes are still used to this very day as an attachment point between a camera and an external flash.
Finally, the last major obstacle to overcome in the design of this new camera was to build it cheaply so that Universal could hit its $25 goal. An added benefit to the design of Kende’s rotary shutter was that it had far fewer parts than the typical leaf or focal plane shutters used by other manufacturers. Aluminum and zinc die-cast parts were used to keep the number of precision parts to a minimum. This was done in an effort to employ unskilled laborers who would work for less. Universal outsourced the lens design and some of the accessories to other American companies to keep costs low. The lens was made by the American company Wollensak who already had knowledge of designing inexpensive interchangeable lenses.
Universal had one more trick up their sleeve to guarantee profits. All Univex cameras used a proprietary “00” film that they sold exclusively for their cameras. The idea is similar to how smartphones are sold today. The camera would be sold as a “loss leader” with the expectation that people would have to keep coming back to buy film, which was where the company could continue to receive profits from.
In 1938, the Univex Mercury CC was released to an unsuspecting public who viewed Universal as a forgettable company that made cheap cameras. It boasted the worlds first rotary shutter in a still camera that could reliably hit speeds as fast as 1/1000th of a second. It was the only camera in the world with a flash synchronized hot shoe on the camera, and it was built in an attractive lightweight aluminum alloy body. As for the price? Universal delivered on their promise that this camera would sell for $25, which was equal to one week’s pay of the average American worker in 1939.
The camera was an immediate hit and sold well. Amateurs liked the camera because of its low price, and pro photographers liked it for its fast shutter speed and hot shoe flash synchronization. Universal’s profits soared 25% from 1938 to 1939, and the Mercury CC was mainly responsible for the entire Universal corporation’s profits.
Although the Mercury CC’s fastest shutter speed of 1/1000 tied it with the Leica III, the Contax III of the era boasted an even faster shutter speed of 1/1250. As a result, a higher end version of the CC, called the CC-1500 came out with a revised spring in the shutter that maxed the top speed at 1/1500 seconds to beat the Contax. The CC-1500 is a very rare camera as an estimated 3000 were made.
From 1939 – 1941, the Mercury CC continued to sell well and became one of the most popular American cameras of the day. But starting in 1941, the Universal corporation became involved in World War II and transitioned its manufacturing to making binoculars and other optics for the war effort.
Once the war was over, Universal decided to get back to making cameras, but they had a problem. Until this time, all of Universal’s cameras used a proprietary film that was unique to Universal cameras. This film wasn’t actually made by Universal, but instead by a company in Belgium who had the expertise of making film cheaply. After the war, getting anything made cheaply from a company in war-ravaged Europe would have been impossible, so Universal knew they had to redesign the Mercury CC to accept a different kind of film.
In the late 1930s and early 40s, 35mm 135 film was gaining popularity with still camera manufacturers. It was cheap, readily available, and well liked by the public. Universal knew that if they were to regain their status as a premiere camera maker, they needed to use 35mm film in the Mercury.
Universal’s proprietary film did not have sprocket holes and was narrower than 35mm film, so in order to incorporate the hardware to accept 35mm film, the entire body of the Mercury had to be redesigned. If you compare a Mercury CC with a Mercury II side by side, the Mercury II is both slightly taller and wider.
In order to stay in line with other 35mm cameras, the new Mercury needed to have an easy way to rewind the film, so a rewind knob was added to the top, and a film advance knob was added to the lower front of the camera. The larger body also allowed for a film reminder dial on the back of the camera, and a new frame counter which was separate from the shutter winding knob. To keep costs low, the new body was made from an aluminum-magnesium alloy as opposed to the all aluminum design of the Mercury CC.
One side effect of the switch to 35mm film was that the opening on the rotary shutter was smaller than the needed opening for a typical frame of 35mm film. 35mm cameras expose a frame that is 36mm x 24mm. The existing shutter and body size simply could not allow for a frame of this size, so the Mercury II was sold as a “half frame” camera, which made exposures that were 18mm x 24mm, exactly half of a regular 35mm camera. Although the frames would be smaller, you would be able to take more exposures on a single roll of film than otherwise available. A 24 exposure roll of film could handle 44 exposures with the Mercury II and a 36 exposure roll of film could handle 65 exposures. The reason the total number of exposures is not double is because there is still space needed in between each frame, and that cuts down the total frames to a little under double.
The lens received some upgrades as well. Color photography was getting to be more common in the 40s, so the lenses available for the Mercury II received a new coating on the glass which made them less prone to flare on color film.
The Mercury II (Universal dropped the Univex name for this camera) was released around Christmas of 1945 and once again, was an immediate hit. Universal’s upgrades and switch to much more popular 35mm film allowed it a much wider range of film speeds which matched well with the Mercury’s fast shutter.
The Mercury II continued to sell well into the early 50s, and it seemed as though the camera could maintain its popularity, but despite its success, the Universal Camera Company’s finances were in shambles. The company was mismanaged and went bankrupt in 1952. Production of the Mercury II was halted around this time, and the fate of the company went into limbo for another 10 years before finally being dissolved in the early 60s.
Since Universal held several patents for the rotary shutter and hot shoe flash synchronization, no other company attempted to copy the Mercury’s design. By the 50s, camera technology continued to advance, and prices continued to fall. By then, it wasn’t as necessary to have such a unique design to achieve such fast shutter speeds, so more traditional shutter and camera designs prevailed. As a result, no other competitors tried to mimic the Mercury’s unique design, thus sending the Mercury CC and Mercury II into the history books as one of the most distinct looking cameras of all time.
Today, both the Mercury CC and Mercury II are desirable by collectors due to their very unique design and history. Since the Mercury CC uses film that hasn’t been made in over 60 years, copies of the CC are sought after simply as display pieces, however the Mercury II uses 35mm film which is still available today.
The Mercury’s rotary shutter was so good, that many examples still work great nearly 70 years after they were designed. Unlike other shutter designs that can become sticky and inaccurate over time, most Mercury IIs are still as accurate as the day they were made.
The body of the Mercury II was made from a different aluminum-magnesium alloy than the CC, which over time succumbs to oxidation. Most surviving copies of the Mercury II are very dull and show moderate to heavy tarnish in the metal. The original Mercury CC was made using a different alloy which can still look shiny and nice. Some collectors will disassemble Mercury IIs and restore the lustre by sanding and buffing the metal to bring back its original shine, while others prefer the look of the “patina” which they think gives the camera character. I am of the latter group. I actually like the look of the oxidized, dull finish. I think it adds to the unique history of this camera.
The first time I saw a Mercury II, I knew I had to have one. The problem though, is that despite their popularity in the 1930s and 40s, copies in working condition are hard to find these days. Adding to the problem is that Universal went out of business in the early 50s, so there is no legacy to build on. Unless you are a collector or someone who is still alive who shot film in the 1940s, most people have never heard of Universal Camera Company or the Mercury cameras.
I initially became discouraged with the selection on eBay and moved onto other cameras. One day I saw one for sale at $20 and I took a chance at it and won the auction. The copy I received was in what I would consider to be above average condition. The body shows the typical signs of oxidation and tarnish that other Mercury IIs have. The leatherette, while in tact, was damaged and would need to be replaced. My copy came with the base level 35mm f/3.5 Tricor lens. There was an f/2.7 Tricor and f/2.0 Hexar also available. The good news was that the optics of my camera were good, and the shutter still worked. I did notice one quirk that I can’t confirm if it’s common or not, but the shutter doesn’t work if I point the camera towards the floor. If I hold the camera upright, it works fine, but point the shutter at a downward angle and it gets stuck.
There is a very good selection of photos on Flickr which show a complete tear down and restoration of a Mercury II. This is something I may attempt one day, but considering mine already works at least OK, I might just leave well enough alone and not mess with it.
There is not a lot of info out there about the production numbers of Mercury IIs. I have read online that around 150,000 were made and the majority of them came out in the early years as production winded down in the later years. Mine is serial # 86334, which indicates that is an earlier sample, so its production date is probably somewhere between 1946 – 1948.
I took some Q-Tips and cleaned up the camera as much as I could and got the lenses in pretty good shape. The viewfinder also comes apart very easily and I was able to get that cleaned as well. Based on several dry-fires of the shutter, I felt pretty confident that it should work, so I loaded a roll of Fuji 200 and shot some pictures!
Repairs – Updated 5/27/2015
As I mentioned earlier, my camera had a problem where the shutter would jam if it was fired while the camera was pointed towards the floor. This was caused most likely by some internal parts rubbing together causing friction which prevents the shutter from fully rotating. Using the instructions on Flickr, I began the process of tearing down my Mercury and servicing it. It took me about 3 months to complete this process in my free time.
A set of flat head precision screwdrivers and a lens spanner tool is all that needed to remove most of the front lens elements and shutter assembly. The shutter speed knob is the one exception and requires a bit more finesse. The knob is held on by a .050″ allen head set screw and a solid metal retaining pin. Getting the set screw out is simple enough, but the retaining pin can be very tricky to remove. The picture to the left shows how PF McFarland supported the shaft using a bench vise and a coin. Removing this pin requires hitting the pin punch several times with a hammer or mallet, and you want to support the knob and shaft so that it does not bend. I was only able to drive the pin out a little more than half, but was able to remove it the rest of the way using pliers. Once the set screw and pin are removed, the knob comes off the shaft by pulling on it.
Following the rest of PF McFarland’s instructions, I was able to remove the shutter assembly and take a good look at how this camera works. In some ways, the design of the rotary shutter is pretty simple, but still genius. Its interesting that no one thought to do this with any other camera.
I bought some white lithium grease from the auto parts store and lubed the shaft directly behind the shutter speed selector (red arrow) which is where I believe the camera was getting hung up when it was being pointed towards the floor. I also applied a bit of lithium grease in between the two pieces of metal that move when the shutter speed shaft is pressed in (yellow arrow).
I did not have the problem that PF McFarland with a pin backing out of position, but I followed the rest of his directions and removed as much of the old gunk and film bits as possible and lubed everywhere he recommended.
Once I had the camera lubed and cleaned, I focused my attention on the metal finish. I peeled off the old leather and used painters tape to cover the things like the exposure calculator, film speed reminder dial, and viewfinder since these can’t easily be removed.
Once I had everything covered up and the entire front lens assembly removed, I was focus on the finish of the metal body. When I started, I was undecided if I wanted to go for a mirror polish, or keep the brushed metal texture. I decided to go with the brushed look, not just because it requires less steps, but I actually think it looks better. One of the charms of this camera is how the metal tarnishes. I wanted to find a happy medium between removing the bulk of the tarnish, while keeping some of the imperfections.
I used medium grit black sandpaper for the bulk of the work, and then bought a fine grit sanding wheel for my Dremel. The Dremel was good for the hard to reach areas, and then I used the sandpaper to give everything a horizontal brushed texture. I did this over the course of a couple of months and would keep coming back to it a little bit at a time until I was happy with the look of the metal.
A word of note is that the curved piece of metal that is behind the film counter and cocking knob has a very fine metal plating that sands away very easily. I learned this the hard way and ended up completely removing the metal plating of this one piece. It has a brass finish now, and while it doesn’t match any other part of the camera, I don’t think it looks that bad, so I left it as is. Maybe one day I’ll find a parts Mercury and can replace that piece.
Moving onto the leather, the original was not reusable and I was not able to find any pre cut camera leather skins online, so I bought an uncut sheet of saddle tan leather from aki-ashi.com and made my own templates.
Its worth mentioning that I am not very good at precision work. I just do not have enough patience or a steady enough hand to do it really well, but I figured anything would look better than what I had, so I gave it a shot. I made templates by using green painters tape and putting it on the body of the camera and then using a hobby knife to cut the tape exactly in the same of what the leather would need to be.
Once I had the tape cut to the exact shape, I removed it from the camera and applied it to the top of the leather and then cut around the tape like a stencil. It helps to do this with an extremely sharp pair of scissors, but the end result came out OK. There are a few spots I could have done better, and maybe I’ll redo it again in the future, but for now I’m happy with how it looks.
After getting all 4 pieces of leather on the camera, I put everything back together following PF McFarland’s instructions. I ran into a bit of trouble with the metal disc that has the shutter speeds marked on it. It appears this is just press fit onto the back of the shutter speed knob. I couldnt get them to go back together, so I used super glue to attach it.
Before I comment on my results, I should mention that this is already one of my favorite cameras I own. Its ugly, its not simple to shoot, and you have to spend a lot of time thinking about your shot and making sure all of your settings are correct before firing the shutter.
My particular example has a quirk where the shutter doesn’t work properly if the camera is tilted at a downward angle, so you have to make sure you are holding the camera perpendicular to the ground or else it wont fire correctly.
Despite all of that, the way this camera feels in your hand and the sound it makes when that rotary shutter fires is unlike any other vintage or modern camera out there.
I knew I was taking a risk shooting a roll of film in this camera without doing any work to it, but I figured what the heck.
When I got my photos back, I was speechless at how many of them came out great. I will admit, I didn’t take many risks with this camera and shot most everything at infinity. Since this camera is not a rangefinder, there is no focusing aid on the camera. This is what is called “scale focus” where you just guess how far away your subject is, and then rotate the focus wheel on the lens to match the focal distance. Once you fire the shutter, you have no idea whether or not you got it right until you see your developed film.
Below is a gallery of shots from my first roll. As I mentioned above, this is a “half frame” 35mm camera which means that the exposed shots on the film are smaller than that of a normal 35mm camera. This means you can get more shots than you would with any other 35mm camera. On a 24 exposure roll, its good for 44 shots, but I was getting excited about seeing my results, so I never actually made it through the entire roll. I think after 38 shots, I just took the film out and sent it in for developing.
I was fortunate enough to find a sunny day to get some of these shots and they turned out great. The Wollensak 35mm f/3.5 lens is really quite sharp and looks amazing on plain-jane regular ole Fuji 200 film. As you can see, I got a couple of good closeup shots of ice sculptures that came out great. I even attempted a night photo of a house near my home that goes over the top with Christmas lights and that came out wonderful too!
Another thing thats fun to think about is that in the 1940s when this camera came out, color still photography was in its infancy. Color film was extremely slow (meaning the shutter had to stay open longer to get the film to properly expose) and speeds as high as 200 or even 100 which are common today, weren’t even heard of. In addition to this, the ability to develop or “resolve” the level of detail that can be extracted from film negatives was nowhere near as advanced as it is now.
So although this is a completely original camera that is nearly 70 years old, these shots are considerably better than anything that could have been shot when this camera was originally made. I know absolutely nothing of the history of my particular camera. Who owned it? Where did they live? How often did they use this camera? How long had it sat on a shelf or in a box before I received it? Who knows!
But what I think is cool is that these shots you are looking at are the best shots that this camera has ever made. Over 150,000 Mercury IIs were made between 1945 – 1952 and it took all this time for this specific one to end up in my hands and shoot pictures that are comparable to modern cameras made today.
Now that I know my Mercury II not only works, but takes pretty good shots, I cannot wait to shoot more film in it. I would like to do more work to restore the camera and make it look nicer, but I go back and forth about whether or not I should buff and polish the metal body to bring back the shine. I have seen examples of Mercury IIs that have been completely restored and they do look nice. However, I think that the oxidized “patina” of the camera is part of its appeal. This camera looks like this because Universal used a new type of metal alloy that did this. Universal never intended this camera to still be in use almost 70 years later, but it is, and I think that the look of the metal gives it charm. When you see those antique shows where people get their old stuff appraised, you often hear the appraisers say that attempts to polish or clean up an old piece of metal, often degrades it’s value. I’m not keeping this camera for its value, rather its history and charm.
|My Final Word
||The Mercury II is one of the most unique looking and innovative cameras of all time. In addition, it was also a very capable design with a good lens and very reliable shutter. Despite it’s odd appearance, the camera is easy to use and has good ergonomics while shooting. I don’t recommend trying to make sense of the exposure dial on the back, as Sunny 16 works good enough, but in use, the Mercury II delivers satisfying shots that also has the added benefit of getting nearly twice as many exposures out of a single roll of film. Whether you are a collector of odd cameras, American cameras, or just like film cameras, a Mercury II is deserving of being in every collection.|
|Images||Handling||Features||Viewfinder||Feel & Beauty||History||Age|