Until about the mid-1960s, no matter how simple a camera was to operate, loading film into it was a pain. Film came on a spool, which you secured at one end of the camera. You then stretched the film and its protective backing paper across the camera and threaded film and paper into a waiting takeup spool. If the backing paper slipped out of your fingers, it would curl and you’d have to try to stretch it back out while still holding the film and the camera. This required three hands. Making the task more exciting, you had to manage all of this in the dark to keep from fogging the film.
Kodak, always looking to remove the barriers to photography, finally made it trivial to load film in 1963 when it introduced the Kodapak, a sealed film cartridge. You might know the Kodapak better as size 126 film. To load a Kodapak-ready camera (Kodak called them Instamatics), you just dropped in a cartridge – in any light.
Because innovation usually breeds competition, rival Agfa introduced the Rapid film system in 1964. More accurately, it reintroduced and renamed its 1930s-vintage Karat film system. It improved on the spool system but wasn’t quite as easy to load as the Kodapak. The Rapid system coiled 35mm film into special metal cartridges. You dropped a full Rapid cartridge into one end of a camera, an empty Rapid cartridge into the other end, and closed the camera. When you wound the camera for the first photo, the camera threaded the film into the empty cartridge. As you shot the roll, the camera coiled the film into the takeup cartridge, which you then sent for processing.
I’ve been curious about Rapid cameras for some time, but never so curious as to lay out money for one. But then my old friend (and copywriter and SEO expert) Mike, who shares my interest in vintage cameras, came across one in its box at a thrift store for $1.31. He scooped it up – and immediately placed it on permanent loan in the Jim Grey Camera Collection.
The camera inside looks to never have been used, though the spent flashcube inside the box suggests otherwise.
The Isoflash-Rapid C was first made in 1966, though I haven’t been able to find out when Agfa quit making it or how many were made. It sold for $14.95, which doesn’t seem like much until you consider that this is almost $100 in 2010 dollars. It shoots the 24mm square exposures typical of the Rapid camera family (although a couple Rapids shot 24x36mm exposures). Its fixed-focus Isitar lens operates at f/8.2; its Parator shutter has two speeds, “sunny” at 1/80 sec and “shade/cloudy” at 1/40 sec. So the biggest mistake you can make with this camera is to forget to set the shutter speed to match the sky.
The Isoflash-Rapid C’s ability to take flashcubes distinguishes it from the earlier Isoflash-Rapid, which used AG1 flashbulbs. A battery hidden under the removable bottom plate powered the flashcube. My camera’s 43-year-old battery was installed; I’m amazed that it never leaked! I can’t tell what size battery it is, but I understand that some people have successfully fired the flash after stacking four SR44 button batteries in that compartment.
The box also contained a roll of Rapid film that has been expired since 1968. Dig that crazy aluminum film canister! I wonder whether the film is exposed. I’m not sure I’m willing to have it developed to find out. I understand it’s possible to spool modern 35mm film into a Rapid cassette, but I’m not up for that. I think I’ll let this Isoflash-Rapid C sit on the shelf and look good.
Agfa’s Rapid gambit didn’t pay off in the face of Kodak’s muscle. Few manufacturers other than Agfa signed up to make Rapid-system cameras while nearly every camera manufacturer made 126-cartridge cameras. Agfa eventually decided they couldn’t beat ’em, so they joined ’em, turning out their own 126 cameras. The Rapid system was left to fade away, and Agfa quit making Rapid film sometime in the 1980s.
If you like classic cameras, check out my entire collection.