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Widget Of The Week

Kodak Pony 135 Model C, 1958

You may be wondering what this rather ordinary-looking 1950’s 35mm film camera is doing here. It is not an especially interesting or unusual design and there are no obvious features that warrant more than a passing mention. It wasn’t ahead of its time in any particular respect and as far as I am aware the pictures it took were not that different in quality to those shot on scores of similarly specified models from the same era, but there is one thing that sets it apart, certainly from most other still cameras, and that’s the lens. This camera is fitted with a 3-element Kodak Anaston lens with a focal length of 44mm; so far so ordinary, but the key point is that it is made using Thoriated glass, which means that it is mildly radioactive. In fact it is actually quite ‘lively’ and the alpha, beta and gamma radioactivity it emits is easily detected, even by modestly specified radiation monitoring instruments, but more on that in a moment.

 

Kodak’s Pony range was mainly aimed at amateur photographers; it’s an intermediate model, sitting between basic point and shoot cameras, like the classic Kodak ‘Brownies’, and more advanced and capable pro and semi-pro designs. The first Pony’s appeared in the late 1940s but this one, the Model C dates from the mid to late 50s. It’s a tough little camera, with a brown Bakelite body, good quality mechanics and optics. It uses 135 film cassettes, which was the Kodak designation for 35mm film; this is loaded into a compartment on the rear of the camera and manually threaded onto a take-up reel. The film is advanced, one frame at a time by turning the large knob on the right side of the top panel (looking at it from the rear), and when the roll has been exposed, it is wound back into the cartridge by the big knob on the left.

 

There are no fancy-schmancy meters or automatic controls, just a decent assortment of manual exposure options. The flash synchronised shutter is manually cocked and the speed can be adjusted between 1/25th and 1/300th of a second in 4 steps. There is also a ‘B’ or Bulb setting, where the shutter stays open for as long as the shutter button is pressed. (Bulb is a reference to the early days of photography when camera shutters were operated pneumatically, by pressing a rubber bulb). The iris or aperture range is from f/3.5 to f/22, in 7 steps, and to make things really easy it can be set by the numbers, or according to the conditions (Bright, Hazy, Cloudy, Cloudy-Bright), calibrated for Kodak’s black and white (Ektachrome) and colour (Kodachrome) films. The focussing ring on the front of the lens barrel is calibrated for distances of between 25 feet to infinity. The shutter’s manual cocking lever is on the side of the lens barrel and just below that there’s a bayonet connector for a flashgun.

 

Back now to that scary-sounding lens, and the reason it is radioactive is simple.  Mixing glass with the radioactive element Thorium (actually Thorium Oxide), up to 30 percent by weight, does several useful things, including increasing the glass’s refractive index. This means that lenses can be made thinner (which also helps reduces the cost). It also reduces chromatic aberrations in the glass, which causes objects to have coloured fringes, due to differences in the way glass focuses different colours. Over the years other radioactive elements have also been used in lenses, including Lanthanum, but it is not as cheap, effective (or radioactive).

 

In its pure state Thorium is only weakly radioactive and emits mostly Alpha particles, and on the scale of nastiness this is considered the least harmful type, outside of the body at any rate. Alpha radiation has very little penetrating power – particles can be stopped by a sheet of paper and do not pass through skin – so on the face of it, its inclusion in glass lenses doesn’t seem especially controversial. However, as Thorium decays it creates Beta and Gamma radiation (weirdly, the production of decay products means that the radioactivity increases over time, which is the opposite of what you would expect). Beta and Gamma has more penetrating power than Alpha radiation and it can cause problems, especially when there’s enough of it, in close proximity to living tissue. Fortunately the amounts of radioactivity given off by these and similar lenses is not generally regarded as hazardous, under normal circumstances and with normal use. However, radiation is tricky and highly contentious stuff so play safe and on no account put a bag full of Thorium-doped lenses in your trouser pockets…  Joking aside, if this is something you are concerned about the clever thing to do is read up on the subject, and if you want to check if the cameras in your collection, or plan on buying, have radioactive lenses do your homework – there is plenty of information online -- and it could be worth your while getting hold of a Geiger Counter (sorry for the shameless plug).

 

My little Pony came from ebay a good few years ago and as far as I recall it cost a couple of pounds. It is still in great condition and I have no doubts that it is still capable of taking photographs. I actually sought this model out, as a radioactive test source, after acquiring one of my first Geiger Counters. It proved to be very effective, though it needs to be in close physical contact with most instruments to get any sort of reading, and it doesn’t register anything when held a few centimetres away. 

 

What Happened To It?

Kodak’s Pony series ran from 1949 to around 1962 and throughout that period most models were fitted with either an Anaston or the higher quality 4-element Anastar lenses, and almost all of them used Thoriated glass. By the time it was being phased out Kodak had introduced the first of its pioneering Instamatic cameras, which at the time was arguably one of the biggest advances in photography for 50 years. Kodak obviously didn’t abandon the 35mm format but it gradually evolved into a serious amateur and semi pro format, with Instamatic and Instant cameras rapidly taking over the mass market. It is not known how many Pony cameras were made but you can take it as read that it was a heluva lot. They are really well made, and usually come with a protective leather case so there are still plenty of them around. They’re flea market and car boot sale regulars and because they look so ordinary, tend not to attract much attention and typically sell anywhere from 50 pence to £5.00, sometimes more if they’re in tip-top condition, boxed and come with instructions. Pony cameras are not yet serious collectibles but inevitably prices will only increase so now is as good a time as any to add one to your collection and whilst it is not much to look at, it does have an interesting story to tell. By the way, although there are no significant health hazards associated with this and other cameras with radioactive lenses if you have one then it is prudent not to let children play with it and it’s a good idea to store it safely, preferably in a metal box. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen            1955

Original Price      £22 ($34)

Value Today        £10 (0315)

Features              35mm format, Thorium doped Kodak Anaston lens: 44mm, shutter: B, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, 1/300th sec, aperture: f/3.5, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, presets Ektachrome/Kodachrome Bright/Hazy/Cloudy/Cloudy Bright, shutter sync, optical viewfinder, film advance interlock (to prevent double exposures)

Power req.                      n/a

Dimensions:                    140x 65 x 85mm

Weight:                            510g

Made (assembled) in:      Rochester, USA

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):    5


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