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Hubert Nerwin

Zeiss Ikon's Extraordinary Camera Designer

 

Hubert Nerwin was born in Linz, Austria in 1906. He graduated from the Federal Institute of Mechanical, Electrical and Civil Engineering in that same city in 1926. His first job was in Germany for the American firm, IBM. In the Stuttgart suburb of Sindelfingen, he was part of a team that worked to convert the original Hollerith punched card from the round formatted 45 coded holes per card type to the rectangular 80-column version, which could be used to great advantage for another 50 years. Three years later, he would move to Berlin to work for the industrial giant, Siemens. There he worked to produce a photocopy device that would photograph, process and deliver a dry copy within a single, self-contained device.

In 1932, he again changed jobs. This position took him to Dresden where we became one of the members of the camera design team at Zeiss Ikon. This was the year that the black Contax I came to market to do battle with the very successful Leica miniature camera. Technically, these two cameras would share little else but their 35 mm film. Heinz Küppenbender had designed this camera under the specification dictated by Professor Emanuel Goldberg who was the General Director of the collection of businesses under the name of Zeiss Ikon. The head of the camera design department, Martin Nowicki and the project's leader, Arthur Mende, assisted him. A Mr. Schiefer who was the head of the shutter department was one who would struggle with the sophistication of the new Contax vertical moving metal shutter. He had been a specialist in intra-lens shutters and this was a great change to him.

The pressure to bring the product to market was great and, frankly, it came to the market with many problems. So many problems that new versions of the camera came out every few months over its life span, that the photographic dealers complained loudly about the lack of consistency. After the poor reception of the first miniature Zeiss Ikon camera, the Kolibri, the first Contax was somewhat of an embarrassment.

Hubert came to the firm with no special knowledge of cameras but only with his knowledge as an engineer and his personal characteristic of inventiveness. Within a remarkably short time, he proved his skills to his new employer and rose from the design bench to the head of the design department. This was done in very trying times. The Nazi party was coming to power and had already influenced the firm of Zeiss Ikon in many ways. The General Director, Emanuel Goldberg, had been kidnapped by Nazi thugs because he was Jewish and it took two days to and free him. It was clear that Goldberg was in grave danger if he stayed and so Zeiss moved him to a position in France. One of Hubert's friends and fellow designers, Hans Padelt was also forced out of the company. Hans could only work as a freelance photographer for Zeiss Ikon marketing and he produced many of the photographs for many of Zeiss Ikon's catalogs and advertising. For reasons not now known, Martin Nowicki also leaves the firm and within 2 years Hubert Nerwin is his successor as the head of camera design.

He is directed to fix the Contax and make it a camera that would not to have any visible changes over its lifetime. He does so and greatly improves the shutter efficiency and incorporates better rangefinder technology that he first introduced to the later versions of the Contax I cameras. The camera also shows an improved film advance mechanism among other upgrades. It also goes chrome. Important among the characteristics of any Nerwin designed camera, he makes the product fit in the hand perfectly with controls at your fingertips..

He worked with his staff and produced many innovative designs. Before the Second World War Zeiss Ikon would produce more quality 35 mm cameras than the rest of the industry combined. He worked on the twin lens Contaflex which was a hugely adventurous design with major advances in viewfinder design. It used the same family of lenses in a different mount from the Contax, had the first light meter built into the camera design and had many other innovations.

Under his technical direction many new and superb cameras came to market: The Ikoflex series of medium format twin lens reflex cameras with the spectacular Ikoflex III in 1939, the Super Ikontas and a new family of upgraded Ikonta roll film cameras, other 35 mm innovations such as the Super Nettels and the Nettax and a perfectly gorgeous camera known as the Tenax II.

The Tenax II was a particularly wonderful design with a fingertip rapid film advance that moved the film without bringing the camera down from eye level It had an intra-lens shutter made especially by the firm of Deckel, a built-in Compur for each of its family of interchangeable lenses. It made a 24 x 24 mm image instead of a 24 x 36 image, which allowed for more pictures in a square format. His design also included a vacant are for a light meter that could later be incorporated into the camera as an improvement to the original design. Unfortunately, much of Hubert's work would not test the markets since the coming war was consuming resources at the factory and exports to the leading markets of American and the British Empire were no longer possible.

During the period form 1938 -1945, the war economy of Germany did not permit either the production or design of commercial products over war materiel. Hubert and his designers worked on many projects supporting the country's wartime economy. He traveled to Peenemünde to create photographic devices to observe the national rocketry projects under Werner von Braun, he adapted his beloved Tenax into a camera to document x-ray pictures in a 24 mm square image due to the shortage of x-ray supplies and a high incidence of tuberculosis and, all the while, he continued to work on camera designs to prepare the company for new markets after the war.

His team designed a single lens reflex version of the Contax camera for telephoto lenses and made other prototypes of other new cameras based on the Contax, the Tenax and an even smaller version of a family of cameras similar to the Super Nettel. All of these new camera models were secreted away in the safe in the model shop in the basement of the Ica Works. This building was also where all of Zeiss' 35 mm camera production was situated. Since he was an Austrian native and not born in Germany and because of the nature of his work, he remained in the Zeiss Ikon offices for the duration of the war and not taken into the military as was his former associate, Hans Padelt.

This advertisement for the Tenax II shows Hubert in Lederhosen.

The Tenax II was a particularly wonderful design with a fingertip rapid film advance that moved the film without bringing the camera down from eye level It had an intra-lens shutter made especially by the firm of Deckel, a built-in Compur for each of its family of interchangeable lenses. It made a 24 x 24 mm image instead of a 24 x 36 image, which allowed for more pictures in a square format. His design also included a vacant are for a light meter that could later be incorporated into the camera as an improvement to the original design. Unfortunately, much of Hubert's work would not test the markets since the coming war was consuming resources at the factory and exports to the leading markets of American and the British Empire were no longer possible.

During the period form 1938 -1945, the war economy of Germany did not permit either the production or design of commercial products over war materiel. Hubert and his designers worked on many projects supporting the country's wartime economy. He traveled to Peenemünde to create photographic devices to observe the national rocketry projects under Werner von Braun, he adapted his beloved Tenax into a camera to document x-ray pictures in a 24 mm square image due to the shortage of x-ray supplies and a high incidence of tuberculosis and, all the while, he continued to work on camera designs to prepare the company for new markets after the war.

His team designed a single lens reflex version of the Contax camera for telephoto lenses and made other prototypes of other new cameras based on the Contax, the Tenax and an even smaller version of a family of cameras similar to the Super Nettel. All of these new camera models were secreted away in the safe in the model shop in the basement of the Ica Works. This building was also where all of Zeiss' 35 mm camera production was situated. Since he was an Austrian native and not born in Germany and because of the nature of his work, he remained in the Zeiss Ikon offices for the duration of the war and not taken into the military as was his former associate, Hans Padelt.

In the winter of 1944/5, it was obvious that Germany was not going to win the war. The trips to remote sites such as Peenemünde, Berlin and other locations where he had worked on special military assignments were no longer occurring. Hubert and his young son would climb out to the rooftop of their home where they saw Allied aircraft reconnoitering the city of Dresden. This was so disturbing that Hubert decided to take his family out of Germany to the comparative safety of his mother's home in Austria. Hubert, his wife, her mother and the two young boys would travel by train at night which is the only time that such travel was safe and so it took a week or more to travel this relatively short distance. Where they would sleep for the daylight hours was always an adventure.

Mrs. Nerwin packed only necessary clothes but she also took a large cache of sugar, which could be used to barter for other things as well as being a source of energy for the family. Hubert took a suitcase full of cameras that could also be used in lieu of money. Once the family was safe in Linz, he returned to Dresden to maintain contact with his employer and the projects that were still active and to be prepared for what was to come to the business.

On February 13 & 14, the Allied air forces relentlessly bombed the city. In the Striesen section of the city, the Ica works of Zeiss Ikon was utterly devastated by this bombing with all of the upper floors of the mail building collapsed into the basement level where the technical drawings, prototypes and models had been stored. Zeiss Ikon had lost all of its capacity to manufacture 35-millimeter cameras with the loss of this factory complex. The loss of the plant was estimated at 80%. The nearby Ernemann facility, which had concentrated on darkroom and cinematic equipment, was struck as well but the damage was minor and estimated at 10%.

It became clear to Hubert that there was not longer a reason for him to remain in Dresden. He successfully retraced his steps back to his family in Austria where it was relatively safe. When the war became clearly lost, many of the German people started moving by foot toward what would become the Western zones since there was great fear of the Russian army. So again, Hubert took his family to the night trains with the goal of getting as close to the Stuttgart location of his employer. This was accomplished amid many harrowing situations and the commodities of sugar and cameras kept the family sheltered and fed.

They stayed in small farming villages until it was safe for Hubert to venture to the old Contessa factory and let Zeiss Ikon know where he was. The factory was under the control of the French army at first and this did not allow for restarting the business. However, Stuttgart soon came into the hands of the Americans who were more interested in getting the country back into working condition. Hubert negotiated for suitable but simple housing and began the process of helping to restore the plant to manufacturing photo equipment instead of military ordinance. It was not an easy time for food and working conditions and there were American military and commercial interests always visiting the plant and watching.

He secured a location to fashion a home and commuted to work each day by train. He was clearly an important player in bringing the Contessa Works back on line as a successful manufacturer and traveled also to the old Goerz Works in Berlin where replacement equipment was needed. He took vital material via by American military trucks to replace the full plant taken as war reparations by the Russian military. Seemingly, there was not as much contact with Dresden based on the near total destruction of the Ica plant and the probability of this being taken as reparations by the Russians. Zeiss Ikon's first paying customer was the American Post Exchange system who paid cash for the first cameras available from Stuttgart.

Both the military and several American firms approached Hubert with regard to working in the US. This was difficult since he had signed a 10-year employment contract with Zeiss Ikon in 1937. These people would visit him at the little home that he had constructed outside of Stuttgart in the evening after he had finished his work at the plant. It is not clear whether he could not be released from the contract or if he fulfilled the terms until 1947 and then left the firm. The link between what would become two separate Carl Zeiss firms and a similar situation with Zeiss Ikon made this situation very confused with certain high level managers leaving for a lengthy de-nazification processes, which were usually held in England or Ireland.

After a long ocean voyage, Hubert's family was reunited with him in New York Harbor. After a night in a New York City hotel, the family left by train for their new hometown of Rochester, NY. Hubert's contract had increased his salary significantly and his prospects for being a significant contributor at Graflex were very high and so he was welcomed into the community there. He would later bring Hans Padelt, a good friend from his days at Zeiss Ikon to Rochester. Hans would later take Hubert's position with Graflex while Hubert would move on to work at Kodak. He would never work on such ambitious projects as he did at Zeiss Ikon but he did make significant contributions to the Kodak bottom line which helped his family adjust well to American life.

Ultimately, Hubert accepted a position with Graflex in Rochester, NY. This was done via Operation Paperclip, which was the vehicle used to bring talented German scientists and engineers to the US. Hubert was transported to New York on the same ship as famed rocket scientist, Werner von Braun whose projects he had supported during the war. The family was left behind but was given support by the American military while he was gone. Some months later in 1948, the family was transported to Bremerhaven via train and sent by Liberty Ship to the US. There were two ships in the harbor and they were scheduled to leave on the second. This was quite fortunate since the first one ran into the edge of a hurricane and broke apart. Their ship rescued some of the passengers from the first ship and every inch was packed with military, dependents and other passengers. Under the military situation in the ship, women were billeted separately from the children, which caused some problems. When they arrived in New York, Hubert was waiting for them at dockside along with the President of the Graflex. After a night in a big city hotel, they all departed via train to their new home in Rochester.

In the two years in Stuttgart, Hubert produced three beautiful little cameras, which were introduced after he had left for the US. They were the Ikonta 35 that was later named the Contina, the Contina II, which was the same basic camera with an uncoupled rangefinder built in, and the exquisite Contessa 35. These are also the only cameras that I am aware of that were designed to be symmetrical. By this I mean that the lens was centered on the camera and perfectly balanced in the hand. These cameras had no controls on the top of the camera and easily fit into a small pocket. They became very popular and helped Zeiss Ikon become profitable. He started the process to redesign the Contax cameras but this process took many years to complete since the staff in Stuttgart had not been trained in 35 mm production or design. He contributed a new design for the metal shutter among other innovations.

His early work at Graflex was an assignment by the US War Department. He designed what is considered to be a larger version of the Contax II with 70 mm film. It was given the name of Army Still Picture Camera. It quickly acquired another name, "Gulliver's Contax." The American camera manufacturers had not attained the level of detailed production skill compared to the German optical and camera factories and so it was difficult to successfully produce the equivalent of a Contax camera.

In 1955, he moved to Eastman Kodak and worked on many development projects, which lead to more than 200 American patents before his retirement in 1971. Kodak never attempted to produce the range of high end products of Zeiss Ikon. He was respected for his ingenuity and problem solving and for his unassumingly quiet and witty manner. He spoke before a number of photographic history groups and I was fortunate to meet him at the second meeting of the Zeiss Historica Society in 1980. He answered all of our questions for a few hours on that one memorable evening. He enjoyed the pleasure of his family and the peaceful hours at his little cabin in the Finger Lakes area of western New York until his death in 1983. He truly was the fulcrum of the success of the golden era of Zeiss Ikon design.

Click here to view a sample of Hubert Nerwin's designs

 

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