Impasse between the first retrofocus lens designs for cinema cameras and the first one for SLRs

Julio Gómez

Dear members of the CML community:

i’m writing you with a kinda bizarre question in my mind. Bit of a long story –as usual with me– so i beg for your patience and apologize in advance for taking so much of your time.

A colleague of mine (the actual founder of one of the publications where i ‘m a technical editor at) is writing an in-depth article on the first retrofocus lenses designed for SLR still cameras. He called me to ask about whether Pierre Angénieux was influenced by any previous experience with cinema lenses before he released its first 35 mm f/2.8 R1 retrofocus lens in 1950. I quickly pointed out to him that Angénieux didn’t actually “invent” retrofocus lenses and that it was Horace W. Lee who designed an inverted telephoto modification of the Speed Panchros back in 1930 (the famous Special Speed Panchro 30 mm F/1.3) in order to accommodate it on the original 3-strip system of Technicolor cameras. I told him the motives and the whole story, which thanks goodness was very easy for him to understand as he’s actually a doctor in Optics.

But then he came with another question i didn’t expected. If the first SLR still camera (that’d be the Exakta) was released in 1936 and then the Alpa-Reflex came out in 1939, why did it take lens manufactures so many years to develop a retrofocus design for SLR cameras? Granted, there was a technical leap from the academic format of the 35 mm strips on the Technicolor system (16 x 22 mm) to the “double frame” format of SLR cams (24 x 36 mm) but that couldn’t possibly be the only reason behind a 14 years impasse, could it?

So we were just wondering, did Cooke (Taylor, Taylor & Hobson at the time) had any exclusivity agreement with Technicolor that specifically prevented the company from developing retrofocus designs for other formats or for the general public? Were they prevented from doing so by Bell & Howell (which were a major investor back them) or by Rank (who owned the company in the 40’s)? Or did they enforced their patent on retrofocus in a way that prevented any other manufacturers from doing it up until the fifties?

Mr. Carey Duffy, as kind as ever, took my question to their archivist at Cooke and he answered that “there was no exclusivity agreement keeping TT&H from developing whatever they pleased off Lee's patent.  None that I am aware of or ever saw mentioned in the archives".

So it seems this question has no answer. Maybe the cinema & photo worlds did not meet that often at trade shows as some of us do!

At this point i think going further it’s a bit of an overkill. I might be thinking too much, but we’re just trying to be accurate in our articles and that’s why i’m writing here with a nonsense curiosity about such unimportant matter :-) I’ll be forever grateful if any of you could throw some light over it. We’re not in a rush here, as the article is coming out next month, but we’ll appreciate a little help.

Again, thanks for your attention and time:

Julio Gómez, ACTV

Cinematography trainer and beta tester / Technical editor for Albedo Media

Based in Madrid, but living mostly inside a plane.