Carl Akeley (1864-1926) was a taxidermist, sculptor, explorer and inventor. This man of many talents is known for several firsts. He revolutionized the art of taxidermy by utilizing clay molds instead of stuffing with hay. Akeley also invented the cement spray gun as well as a powerful searchlight that was used by the United States Army during the first World War.
Carl Akeley had a deep passion for the natural world and the animals that inhabit it. He traveled to Africa on several occasions to collect specimens for the American Museum of Natural History. In 1909, Akeley joined President Theodore Roosevelt on a trip to Africa, which was documented in the Cherry Kearton feature “With Roosevelt in Africa” (1910).
We learned of Carl Akeley through a recent purchase. Carl’s contribution to the Motion Picture industry was the “Akeley” 35mm Motion Picture camera. This hand-crank camera looks nothing like the other cameras of its day. The “Akeley” was developed as a field camera and became the standard for many naturalists in the 1920’s through the 1940’s. The camera was most notably used for Robert Flaherty's “Nanook of the North' (1922). The cameras bizarre design gave it unique capabilities. The body featured a built-in tripod head allowing for smooth pan-tilt motions (unfortunately our camera does not have this intact). The shutter mechanism was the camera's real “claim-to-fame”. The rotary design of the body gave room for the shutter to travel all the way around its circumference.
Why is that so unique? Well, as a result, the shutter angle was 230 degrees. Standard “box style” motion picture cameras had a 180 degree shutter, or less. The design of the standard motion picture camera shutter is illustrated below. A small, half circle disc rotated in front of the film plane, exposing the film plane for half the rotation.
So in terms of shutter speeds, the math is pretty simple. A camera shooting 30 frames per second (30 revolutions per second) has an equivalent shutter speed of 1/60th of a second. The result of having 50 degrees more shutter is having longer shutter speeds (in this case 1/20th of a second) and gaining almost 1/3rd more light than standard cameras. This was important to Akeley because the majority of his filming was during the dusk and dawn hours when lighting was not ideal.
While Akeley’s design was pure genius, it never gained enough credibility throughout the industry to revolutionize the motion camera market. It was not until the 1970’s that the industry would see a camera with a 220 degree shutter (still not as wide as the Akeley).
This sort of technology makes me truly appreciate the advancements we have in digital cameras today. Take a DSLR for instance. Many DSLR’s have the capability of recording high definition video at the push of a button, like the highly popular Canon 5D Mark II, 7D, or the Nikon D7000. How do you adjust the “shutter angle” or shutter speed on one of them? Simply turn a dial… bingo… done. How did you change it on an Akeley? Well first, you need to completely disassemble the camera. Remove the rotating shutter disc. Custom cut a new disc. Reinstall and calibrate, then pray that you got the right angle you need.
The “Akeley” is a remarkable piece of motion picture engineering, and about as rare as they come. World famous photographer Paul Strand once said of the camera, "It's really a piece of craftsmanship different from anything our friend George Eastman makes." Paul Strand purchased an Akeley in the early 1920's and photographed its inner workings.
The above photograph is currently part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection and was donated to them in 1987 by The Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell. The MET description of this photograph includes the following text:
Strand had purchased the movie camera only days before he photographed it. His delight in the finely tooled instrument with which he planned to earn his living is evident in the series of photographs he made. This one shows the film-movement mechanism inside the clamshell case. That the camera is depicted upside-down is not irrelevant; the picture works only this way.
It is believed that only 450 of these cameras were ever made, and somehow No. 158 has found its way to Green Mountain Camera. This camera has now been sold, but if you are interested in any of our used camera inventory, please check out our used camera store website here: www.theusedcamerastore.com.
To see the Akeley in action and actual footage captured by the camera, please visit the Wild Film History website.
All of the above color photographs of the Akeley motion picture camera are of the one we have in our collection. Here are some additional photographs of the same camera: