If the world’s casual photographers had a mantra, it would be, “Don’t make me think!” Kodak built a business on being happy to oblige. But by the early 1960s one pesky barrier still remained: loading film. Even the simplest camera required carefully threading roll film in dim light. What a hassle!
Kodak solved that problem in 1963 with its Instamatic cameras and their easy-loading Kodapak (126) film cartridges. Because the film was in a sealed plastic cartridge, it could be loaded in any light. Because of the cartridge’s shape, it was nigh onto impossible to load it wrong. Just drop the cartridge into the camera and close the door! The Instamatic set the world on fire, and for at least the next 15 years 126 film ruled the amateur photographic world.
The first Instamatic was the Instamatic 50, which included a shoe for a flash attachment that took peanut-sized AG-1 bulbs. The 50 was quickly followed by the Instamatic 100, which included a pop-up flash for AG-1s. At about the same time, Kodak released the Hawkeye Instamatic, which as far as I can tell is functionally and mechanically identical to the 50.
All of the early Instamatics left the user with a flash problem: hot, spent AG-1 flashbulbs. So in 1965 Kodak issued the 104, the first camera to use flashcubes, which were four AG-1s in a plastic housing. All early Instamatics used two AAA batteries to power the flash. Here’s a 104 that found its way into my collection.
Kodak made a range of Instamatics with this basic body through about 1971. This commercial, which was made for the TV show Bewitched, shows the Instamatic 124 in action. The 124 was among the last Instamatics to use this body. Just watch how easy it is to load the film. Notice especially how loud the shutter is when it fires. The shutter linkage in these was crude and stiff.
Most of the early Instamatics used a plastic 43mm f/11 lens and a two-speed shutter that fired at 1/40 sec when a flash was attached and 1/90 sec. otherwise. The rest used a glass, three-element 41mm f/8 Kodar lens, and some of those coupled the shutter to a selenium light meter.
Some of these early Instamatics even came with a spring-loaded automatic film winder. You wound a knob atop the camera to tighten the spring, and then as you pressed the shutter button, the spring advanced the film.
But most people bought the basic Instamatics. They weren’t that inexpensive, really: the 104 cost $15.95 new, which is about $120 in 2014 dollars. And they weren’t great cameras. The stiff shutters made the cameras prone to shake, and the plastic lenses returned results sharp enough only for a snapshot-sized print. But that was good enough for most people, and Kodak sold more than 50 million of them by 1970.
The last 126 film was manufactured in 2007, so I’m not going to use these two Instamatics anytime soon. But I shot scads of 126 cartridges when I was a boy with an Imperial Magimatic X-50 camera. I have a box full of blurry square photos from that perfectly dreadful camera. That’s enough for me.