The history of Contax


The River Saale still flows through the German industrial town of Jena, home of the Carl Zeiss Foundation. Jena is a town, like the river, that has remained unchanged by the flow of the centuries.

It was here, in 1846, that Herr Zeiss began his workshop, making high quality magnifying glasses for the faculty of Jena University. From humble beginnings these Carl Zeiss Works grew into one of the largest and most prestigious optical companies in the world.

Carl Zeiss was born in Weimar, Thuringia States on, September 11, 1816. His father was plant manger of a turnery on Weimar Court. Carl attended school and finished the sixth form at the Weimar Gymnasium. Soon after, he apprenticed himself to Dr. Frederick Koerner who was investigating glass for telescope objectives. Upon completion of his apprenticeship, Carl Zeiss was employed briefly as an auditor at Jena University.

While in this position, Herr Zeiss began a study of the theory of lens manufacturing. Later Zeiss traveled for seven years visiting with glass and lens manufacturers in cities such as Stuttgart, Darmstadt, Wein, and Berlin. He made extensive notes on glass melts, materials, kiln temperatures and anything related to the manufacture of glass, microscopes and other optical instruments.

When he returned he attended Jena University where he studied chemistry and mathematics. Then in 1846 when Carl Zeiss was just 30 years old, he started his workshop at Neugasse along the gate street in Jena. Zeiss' first products were magnifying glasses and simple microscopes produced by a group of 20 employees. Production of compound microscopes began in 1858. Carl Zeiss gained a reputation for quality products and his workshop won a Golden Prize in the General Exhibition in Thuringia in 1861.

All of Carl Zeiss' work had been accomplished using empirical; i.e., trial and error production methods. It was obvious that this method of production consumed great amounts of effort and wasted large quantities of materials. Zeiss believed that a scientific approach would lead to more accurate, predictable and economic products. Herr Zeiss struggled, unsuccessfully, with this problem for five years. Eventually, in 1866, he paid a visit to Jena University where he met with Ernst Abbe, then a lecturer at Jena.

Ernst Karl Abbe was born January 23, 1840 in Eisenach, Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Abbe secured a scholarship and graduated from Goettengen University at the age of 21. In 1863 he joined the University of Jena where he rose to become professor of physics and mathematics in 1870. He became director of astronomical and meteorological observatories in 1878. Abbe joined Zeiss' workshop in 1866 as Research Director and the two set out to produce a scientific under-pinning for optical products. Finally in 1872, after six years of work producing new types of optical glass, their labor produced a compound microscope of unparalleled quality. This instrument is the progenetor of all modern compound microscopes in use today.

One year after beginning the manufacture of the Carl Zeiss compound microscope, in 1873, Herr Abbe released a scientific paper describing the mathematics leading to the perfection of this wonderful invention. For the first time in optical design, aberration, diffraction and coma were described and understood. Abbe described the optical process so well that this paper has become the foundation upon which much of our understanding of optical science rests today. As a reward for his efforts Carl Zeiss made Abbe a partner in his burgeoning business in 1876.

The third member of the team that created the Carl Zeiss company was invited by Abbe, in 1879, to join him and Zeiss in the continuing effort to improve the microscope. Freidrick Otto Schott was investigating the use of lithium in a new type optical glass and he wrote to Dr. Abbe describing his progress. Abbe immediately became interested and tested the glass, returning high praise to Schott for his development. The two met and quickly formed a bond that would last the rest of their lives. Schott produced the glass exclusively for the new Carl Zeiss microscopes and in 1884 a full scale factory was established. It was owned by Carl Zeiss, Ernst Abbe and Freidrick Otto Schott, called the Schott & Genossen Glass Works, of Jena. Schott developed over 100 different types of optical glass and additionally, many types of decorative and functional glass. Jena glass became the most famous glass in all the world.

Dr. Ernst Abbe was a man of varied interests and one of those interests was the social improvement cause. When in 1888, Carl Zeiss died, his will bequeathed his interests in the Carl Zeiss company to his son Roderick. The younger Herr Zeiss sold all of his interests in the company to Ernst Abbe who, one year later, in 1889, created the Carl Zeiss Foundation. This foundation established a new group as the owners of Carl Zeiss. The greater portion of the assets were deeded to the University of Jena, whose Department of Education managed the universities interests. This authority was bound by a set of statutes drawn up by Abbe himself, after studying sociology and law for two years. The balance of the estate was donated to the employees of Carl Zeiss. This humane treatment of workers was indeed unusual at the end of the 19th century. Herr Abbe also prescribed statutes for the employees to follow and benefit from. Paid vacations, sick pay, the eight hour day, invalid and old age pensions for workers and their families, representation to management, banishment of racial discrimination, religion, politics or mode of domestic life and others were mandated by Abbe's gift.

That Dr. Ernst Abbe was a genius is beyond dispute. The list of accomplishments in diverse fields is very long but thankfully for photography and optical science he devoted most of his life to the understanding of optical systems and the production of practical products that contributed to modern photography and microscopy.

Dr. Abbe deduced the reason why definition was reduced with the reduction of aperture size of a lens. Today we know the phenomena as the diffraction effect. He calculated how to build a lens without spherical aberration by combining geometry and specially formulated optical glass. He also explained the phenomenom of coma. The correction for coma today is the application of Abbe's sine condition. Further, Abbe is responsible for introducing fluorite into lens design to correct for chromatic aberration. The culmination of research in the elimination of chromatic aberration lead Abbe to the development of apo-chromatic lenses.

Abbe invented the sub-stage condenser illumination system used in microscopes today. Other inventions were a crystal refractometer and in collaboration with Armand Fizeau, Abbe invented an optical dilatometer for measuring the thermal expansion of solids. These accomplishments would be enough to proclaim Abbe a genius but there's much more.

Abbe developed the system of numerical apertures still in use today as a way to express the resolving power and light gathering capacity of microscope objectives. This system allowed comparison of objectives to determine their appropriate application. He invented immersion optics for microscopes, that allowed for a higher numerical aperture by immersing the front element of the objective into water or glycerin dropped onto the microscope slide.

In 1890, the Carl Zeiss Foundation began the development and production of camera lenses. Dr. Paul Rudolph, an optical mathematician, developed the Protar as Carl Zeiss's first photographic lens. Attributes of the Protar were that it provided a normal field of view at wider open apertures and an even wider field of view with smaller apertures. There was no astigmatism or curvature of field in the Protars.

In 1896, Dr. Rudolph developed the legendary Planar, a photographic lens still on the cutting edge of optical performance today. The Planar is used in the Contax SLR system, the Contax rangefinder G1 system and the Hasselblad medium format camera system. The Planar solved the problem of spherical aberration and astigmatism, perfectly by employing a symmetrical optical configuration. The Planar is one of the most copied lens formulae in the world.

By the turn of the century, rare earth glass was being developed at Schott and these were used extensively at Carl Zeiss, including lanthanum oxide, a rare earth that provides very high refractive indices and low dispersion. In 1901 the world saw the first aspherical lens, invented at Carl Zeiss Foundation, by Dr. M. Von Rohr. One can note that some of the buzz words we hear from other manufacturers were in fact in widespread use at the turn of the century at Carl Zeiss.

The Carl Zeiss Tessar was born of Dr. Rudolph's computations in 1902. The Tessar was known as "The Eagle Eye" in its early years of production because its high resolution and excellent contrast. This lens was a relatively simple lens construction of four elements in three groups. It too was copied by virtually every other lens manufacturer in the world. The Tessar is used today for the same reasons as in the past, simplicity of design, high resolution, high contrast and very low levels of distortion.

Ernst Abbe died January 14, 1905, after the company had grown into an industrial giant, much like it is today. In 1919, Frederick Otto Schott donated his share of the Schott & Genossen Glass Works to the Carl Zeiss Foundation. Now, the entire operation was under the ownership of the Foundation.

In 1912, the Eyeglass Division was established along with the Scientific Instruments Division. These two additions to the Carl Zeiss Foundation rounded out the product line of the company while the Eyeglass Division provided cash-flow for the entire company.

In 1925, the E. Leitz Company created a world-wide sensation with the introduction of a 35mm camera. It was innovative, small and instantly popular. The Carl Zeiss Foundation reacted to the success of the Leica a year later, in 1926, by buying four small camera manufacturing firms; Ica, Contessa-Nettel, Ernemann and Goerz, and merging them to form Zeiss Ikon AG. Zeiss Ikon produced cameras of many types during this period but no competitor to the Leica could be developed.

Finally, in 1932, Zeiss Ikon produced the Contax. A product that graced the top of the Zeiss Ikon line. This philosophy was different from Leica, who produced only Leica cameras. There were simple Leicas and very sophisticated ones, but the Contax represented the top of the Zeiss Ikon line.

The Contax of 1932 exhibited a feature set very little different from what we would find today in a top rangefinder camera, including a black body. It had the longest rangefinder base (100mm) ever. The first Contax had a vertical travel, eleven blade, metal, focal plane shutter. Shutter speeds could be set, all from the same dial, up to 1/1000 second. An extraordinary bayonet mount for attachment of interchangeable lenses. Interchangeable lenses were available with speeds up to fl.5. The Contax also had a detachable back to accommodate the changing of film. The Contax I was in production from 1932 to 1938, and by 1934 there were 12 lenses from 28mm to 500mm in the Carl Zeiss lens line.

As stated earlier, lens coating was invented by Carl Zeiss in 1935 and application began on the rangefinder lenses in 1943. The coating was withheld as a secret of Germany until well into World War II when a shipment of coated lenses was shipped to Sweden. This was the only shipment of coated lenses until after the war.

The Contax II began production in 1936 and added the world's first range / viewfinder. Shutter speeds ranged up to 1/1250 second. The Contax II also had a self-timer and a chromium plated body. The Contax II was produced until 1945.

The Contax III, in production from 1936 to 1945 sported a built-in light meter on top of the camera body. Otherwise all of the features of the Contax II are included.

In 1936 or 1937, Carl Zeiss engineers began work on a new kind of camera. It was to be a reflex viewing 35mm design. This camera was based upon the Contax II with the addition of a mirror. This design produced very dark viewing so a field lens was added, still, the image was too dark. A fresnel lens was added along with a pentaprism to make a correct reading right-to-left and right- side-up image. Focusing the lens was accommodated by turning a focusing ring on the lens.

By 1937, work on civilian products slowed to a stop while gunsights and bombsights took precedence. It is said that work on the Contax SLR continued during lunch breaks and other personal time. Unfortunately, all of the Contax SLR prototypes were lost during the war.

The Dresden camera works were destroyed by Allied bombing on the night of February 14, 1945. This bombing ushered in a difficult time in the history of Carl Zeiss Foundation. At the close of the war, Patton's Third Army occupied Jena and its prize; the Carl Zeiss factories. This action set the stage for the safe revival of the Jena works but the Treaty At Yalta decreed a pull-back of the American lines to positions further west. Jena and Dresden now fell under Russian occupation, taking almost the entire Carl Zeiss Foundation with it.

The withdrawing U.S. Army recognized the technological importance of Carl Zeiss and assisted in the removal of 126 key management and crafts-people from what was to become East Germany. The relocated Carl Zeiss employees, including the entire board of directors were relocated to the Contessa manufacturing facility in Stuttgart, West Germany. One of the first orders of business for the relocated board of directors was to officially relocate the Carl Zeiss Foundation to the Stuttgart offices. Thus, it was the position later, that the Carl Zeiss Foundation was an entirely West German company.

Meanwhile, in the eastern sector, the Russians were claiming reparations by dismantling 94% of the remaining Carl Zeiss tooling and factories. It has been said that the trains stretched for miles over a period of several months, back to the motherland, U.S.S.R.. This relocated tooling became the Kiev camera works, which produced low quality copies of the Contax and other Zeiss Ikon products for many years thereafter.

The first component of the Carl Zeiss operation to be revived after the war were the original factories in Jena. They, also known as Carl Zeiss, introduced a small series of cameras labeled "Carl Zeiss Jena". These were assembled from parts on hand and the proceeds from their sale was also confiscated as reparations by the U.S.S.R.

Long term strategies for the two Carl Zeiss companies differed in that the East concentrated their efforts on their unearthed plans to produce an SLR, while the West modernized the Contax rangefinders of the past.

At the Leipzig Spring Fair of 1949, Carl Zeiss Dresden (East) introduced the world's first 35mm SLR camera body with a built-in Pentaprism, called the Contax S. The S came from the word Spiegelflex or mirror reflex, but there was no engraved S on the camera. There was little resemblance to the pre-war prototypes in the S. It had a roof prism and a 42mm screw mount for interchangeable lenses. The Contax S also deviated from the older Carl Zeiss models in that the shutter was a horizontal travel cloth type to reduce the overall size of the camera.

In 1952 the Contax D, successor to the S was again unveiled at the Leipzig Spring Fair. The D appeared on the camera body and was meant to signify Dresden, so as to differentiate this camera from the western Carl Zeiss. The only improvements on the D were that the flash sync socket was moved to the top of the camera and the noisy nature of the S was toned down. Eventually, the Contax cameras of East Germany became the Pentacon, meaning PENTAprism Contax.

It took another year for Carl Zeiss (West) to produce the first post war product, the Contax IIa. It was shown at the first Photokina in 1950. It was not until 1951 that lenses were produced for the post-war Contax rangefinders. Eventually, there were sixteen coated interchangeable lenses for the IIa.

Biogon 21mm f4.5Biotar 75mm fl.5
Topogon 25mm f4.0Sonnar 85mm f2.0
Biogon 35mm f2.8Triotar 85mm f4.0
Biometar 35mm f2.8Tessar 115mm f3.5*
Planar 35mm f3.5Sonnar 135mm f4.0
Sonnar 50mm fl.5Sonnar 180mm f2.8**
Sonnar 50mm f2.0Sonnar 300mm f4.0**
Tessar 50mm f3.5500mm f8.0**

* Required Panflex reflex housing for SLR viewing.

** Required Flektoscope or Flektometer reflex housings for SLR viewing.

In 1951, the successor to the Contax III was unveiled, as did the III, it too sported a light meter built into the camera top. Changes in the IIIa were minor but the light meter was more sensitive and extended in range. Both the Contax IIa and IIIa were discontinued in 1961 bringing to a close the era of rangefinder Contax cameras.

The first SLR produced by Carl Zeiss (West) was in 1953. It was called Contaflex and was a leaf shutter model. The Contaflex was the first SLR to incorporate a behind the lens light meter.

Carl Zeiss (West) began production of the Contarex in 1958. Unfortunately, while being a comprehensive super high quality professional SLR, it also was ugly. It quickly gained the name "cyclops" because of its selenium metering cell in front of the pentaprism, but it was the world's first exposure meter coupled, focal plane shutter camera. With the 50mm f2.0 Carl Zeiss Planar installed, the Contarex weighed exactly three pounds, a heavy weight by today's standard. The Contarex offered the highly desirable ability to interchange the film back. One camera body would suffice to expose many types of film simultaneously. An instant return mirror and matched needle metering greeted the viewer through the eyepiece. This superbly crafted camera was not a success, however, because the Japanese were introducing far less expensive equipment at this time, including the venerable Nikon F. An onslaught of Japanese innovation and practically priced equipment followed.

The Contarex Special debuted in 1960. It was essentially a scaled back SLR with a removable pentaprism. Camera controls were much the same as the previous model but there was no light meter installed. The Special retained the interchangeable back feature of the "cyclops".

In 1966 the Contarex Professional was introduced, again without a light meter. It wasn't until 1967 that Carl Zeiss brought out the Contarex Super with behind the lens light metering. The last SLR from Zeiss Ikon was the Contarex SE. The SE denoted Super Electronic. The SE had a horizontal cloth shutter which was timed by a solenoid. A motor drive was developed that could be bolted to the bottom of the camera. Another interesting feature of the SE was the Tele Sensor which converted the SE into an aperture preferred automatic SLR, probably the first in the world.

The German Contax cameras represented the finest craftsmanship and design innovation. It can be said that Contax, unerringly, paved the way for the modern SLR's of today.

It was obvious that Carl Zeiss could not continue to produce cameras in Germany. Retail pricing soared against the tide of lower priced products from Japan. A solution was found in a partnership with Yashica. Carl Zeiss would continue to design and produce superb optics for camera bodies constructed in Japan. A novel solution that other German camera manufacturers would use later. Yashica was an electronic camera manufacturing giant with tremendous production capability. Yashica was already producing an aperture preferred automatic camera of the rangefinder type in the 35 GSN when the agreement was inked. It was this electronic camera manufacturing experience and the huge production capacity that drew Carl Zeiss to Yashica. After only one meeting of the Board Of Directors at Yashica, the decision was made to initiate "Top Secret Project 130"

A third partner joined the design team to produce this hybrid camera; the F. Alexander Porsche Group. Their expertise was in the field of ergonomics, or human engineering, a concept foreign to most consumer products of that time. The result appeared at the 1974 Photokina and was called Contax RTS for Real Time System. It was a handsome camera to behold and the input and participation of the Porsche Group was immediately clear when the RTS was used. The RTS was traditional in construction yet the features were on the cutting edge of 35mm photography. It was a wholly electronic camera with aperture preferred and manual exposure modes, bolt on optional five frame per second motor drive with intervolometer or two frame per second winder. For the first time a stepless electronic shutter was incorporated with up to 1/2000 second shutter speed available. The new RTS also incorporated exposure compensation for the first time on any camera.

Yashica followed up the RTS with a smaller more compact camera in 1979. It was called the Contax 139Q. The Q signified stepless Quartz timed shutter speeds and timing sequences for other functions to within one micro-second. Through the lens flash metering was also introduced on the 139Q. A 45mm f2.8 Tessar was introduced specifically to mate with the 139Q and provide the smallest top quality SLR in the world.

The third camera introduced by Yashica to wear the Contax badge was the 137MD, the world's smallest and first integrated motor drive camera. All mechanical functions were controlled by micro-motors. The Contax 137MD offered an aperture preferred automatic exposure mode which could be coupled with an AE Lock to set a specific shutter speed for manual operation. The 137MD was shortly followed by the Contax 137MA which introduced minor changes to the MD. A manual exposure mode was added and the motor drive rate was boosted to three frames per second.

The Contax RTS II followed in 1982. It preserved the traditional look of the original RTS but was totally redesigned beneath. The RTS II used the technology gained from its earlier siblings. Introduced was Through The Lens flash metering, Quartz timed shutter speeds and an electronic self-timer. New innovations included a viewfinder blind and a titanium foil shutter.

The Contax 159MM was an "up-graded" Contax 139Q, released in 1985. Top shutter speed on the 159MM was 1/4000 second and X sync was at 1/250 second. The 159MM had three program modes, High Speed, Low Speed and Normal, as well as Aperture Preferred and Manual exposure modes. Through-The-Lens flash metering was also standard.

The 159MM ushered in a new type of aperture indexed Carl Zeiss lens called, appropriately enough, the MM Mount. The MM lens allows the use of the Program modes on the 159MM and subsequent cameras. MM lenses are distinguished by their minimum f stop being painted green. Another technical distinction is that the MM lens has a tab at the lens mount to signal the camera body that it is an MM lens. The real distinction, though, is that the MM lens has a lighter weight diaphragm assembly which allows the camera body to set the f stop for program or shutter preferred modes. The multi-mode camera body will provide program or shutter preferred operation only with an MM lens. Aperture preferred and manual exposure modes are unaffected on any camera because the photographer is responsible for changing the f stop in these modes.

1987 brought the Contax 167MT into the Contax line. It was a multi-mode SLR with an integrated three frame per second motor drive. The 167MT incorporated the world's first Automatic Bracketing Control (A.B.C.) system, as well as optional spot or center weighted averaging metering.

The RTS III was a much awaited solution for professional photographers. It incorporated, for the first time a Real Time Vacuum Back and ceramic pressure plate for the ultimate in film flatness. For the first time the full capability of Carl Zeiss lenses could be seen on film. Another first on the RTS III is the Pre-Flash Spot Meter. It provides TTL flash meter readings with any flash equipment. A five frame per second motor drive is built-in, as is diopter control, Automatic Bracketing Control and multiple exposure capability. Shutter speeds reach 1/8000 second with X sync at up to 1/250 second.

The Contax S2 was introduced as a commemorative of the 60th year of Contax cameras. It's namesake, the Contax S was the world's first successful 35mm SLR. The Contax S2 is a very deliberate camera. It offers no automation, other than a diode light meter coupled to a spot meter. It is a simple camera with a mechanical shutter that provides shutter speeds up to 1/4000 second and a 1/250 second X sync. The S2 was followed shortly by the S2b, a smoky black sibling with only one difference, other than color, the S2b had a center weighted averaging light meter installed.

At the same time that Contax introduced the S2, they introduced the ST a heartier version of the 167MT and it was called the little brother of the RTS III. The ST has a three frame per second motor drive, ceramic pressure plate, 1/200 second X sync, Automatic Bracketing Control, built-in diopter control and a light which illuminated all information for low light shooting.

The pressure was building over a long period of time for Yashica and Carl Zeiss to enter the Auto Focus business. Yashica was prepared to do this and showed a prototype at Photokina in 1982. This prototype was based upon the Contax 137 series of camera bodies and had an in-board motor drive coupling which mated to the installed Carl Zeiss 50mm fl.4 lens. This camera design, changed very little, eventually did appear on the market as the Minolta Maxxum 7000. There was resistance from Carl Zeiss to embrace autofocus technology because it was felt that the lenses would have to be made from lighter materials such as plastic. Needless to say, Contax did not go forward with the introduction of this 137 based AF camera.

In 1993, Yashica introduced a camera that preserved the integrity of the Carl Zeiss manual focus lenses and still provided digital focus assist within the camera body. This camera was called the Contax RX. The RX was an integrated motor drive camera, similar in features to both the Contax 167MT and the Contax ST. The RX provided focus assistance by graphically displaying focus information in the viewfinder. The user still retained responsibility to move the lens but the Digital Focus Assist system would indicate, not only the point of focus but the depth of focus, as well. The RX also introduced Custom Function features for the first time. These Custom Functions allowed the user to customize the way they want to use the camera.

Contax took center stage in 1994 with the introduction of the Contax G1. The G1 stood the entire industry on its ear. A rangefinder camera appeared again under the Contax name for the first time since 1961. It was a titanium bodied camera that alluded to strength and beauty simultaneously. There were a series of four interchangeable lenses; T* Hologon 16mm f8.0, T* Biogon 28mm f2.8, T* Planar 45mm f2.8 and T* Sonnar 90mm f2.8.

Source: Kyocera's North America Web Site.

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