Mercury mystery solved

Discussion in 'Classic Manual Cameras' started by tom_halfhill, Jul 18, 2021.

  1. After my father died, I found two metal Kodak film cans, each containing a developed but uncut roll of 35mm b&w film. When I started to unroll the tightly wound film, it began disintegrating. But I glimpsed a few images and realized they were pictures he took in 1946-47 while stationed at a U.S. Army Air Force base in occupied Japan. The film had been stored in the cans for about 70 years.

    I also noticed that the images were made with a half-frame 35mm camera -- a type of camera I had never known him to own. What gives?

    After unsuccessful attempts to humidify the fragile film, I resorted to a destructive salvage process. I unrolled a few frames at a time, briefly immersed the strip in lukewarm water to relax the curl, quickly inserted it while still wet into a film holder, and copied the images with a DSLR before the base and emulsion disintegrated. I was able to salvage almost every image, albeit with some visible damage.

    Now to solve the camera mystery. One picture appeared to show a soldier playing guitar in the barracks (first photo below). Closer examination revealed he was holding a Mercury 35mm half-frame camera, recognizable by its distinctive hump on the top plate (second photo).

    Another picture showed my father next to some kind of military maintenance vehicle (third photo). Enlargement revealed he was holding a Mercury 35mm half-frame camera (fourth photo).

    My first thought was that he had borrowed the camera from the soldier in the barracks. But other images were taken in the U.S. either before or after his deployment to Japan. So now I think he bought the camera at a PX (Post Exchange, a military store) and used it for only a short time before selling or losing it. His other pictures in Japan were taken with a Brownie box camera he had received as a gift several years before. In any event, the camera was definitely a Mercury, and he didn't have it for long.

    Photo #1: At first I thought this soldier in the barracks was playing guitar...

    Photo #2: But no, he's holding a Mercury 35mm half-frame camera. Nothing else looks quite like it.

    Photo #3: My late father on the airfield, holding a camera. Behind him are several P-51 Mustang fighter planes, but I can't identify the vehicle.

    Enlargement of photo #3: It's a Mercury!
  2. Great recovery of images and I'm enjoying the thread
  3. The vehicle is a Cletrac M2 tractor, looks like its pulling a half-tonne bantam trailer.

    Wel done on the rescue.
    james_barber|4 and tom_halfhill like this.
  4. The Mercury I uses special (not usual) 35mm cartridges.

    The Mercury II uses usual ones.
    But it isn't half frame, closer to 9/16. (4.5 perforations per frame.)

    I don't know how disintegrated it is, but you should be able to count
    the 4.5 perforations. From the manual, it gets 65 shots on a 36 roll.
  5. A great tale of investigation and salvage! Very interesting and somehow inspiring. Thanks for the post.
  6. So, these Mercury cameras must have been pretty common for at least two soldiers in the same platoon to own them.

    I must admit I've never heard of, nor seen one until now.

    FWIW, it sounds like the film was nitrate based. Probably a good thing you soaked it in water before copying. It could have self-ignited.
  7. Indeed they were, though they didn't long survive the transition to non-proprietary film after the war. The shutter is almost always non functional, nowadays.
    Univex Mercury 1939-11 PP.jpg Camera-lot-Mercury.jpg
    The post-war model II
  8. According to camera wiki, the Mercury was indeed half-frame, with its 18x24mm format giving about 65 (including spacing) 4:3 portrait orientation images on a standard length cassette.

    There were a few cameras of around that era that used a 4:3 'full-frame' (24x32mm) format - the Corfield Periflex for example, IIRC - but if camera wiki is to be believed the Mercury doesn't seem to have been one of them.
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2021
  9. My dad got a Mercury II around the time he was in the army. I used it when I was a kid learning photography. I have one in my collection, but not his. IMO, the rotary "pie" shutter is a really clever thing, though it makes quite a clunk as it goes around. The whole thing is primitive but if the lens is clean and well adjusted for focus, it gives a surprisingly good image. I've always wondered what the finish looked like when they were new, as they're usually a bit oxidized and/or corroded now.
  10. Closer to 24x20mm. It seems that 20mm is close enough to 18mm that many call it half frame, and they are definitely portrait orientation.
    I suppose if you made slides, you would need half frame slide mounts, unless someone decided to make special ones for it.

  11. Thanks for all the responses! And thanks to Rick van Nooij for identifying the Cletrac M2 tractor. There's always someone in these forums who knows military vehicles.

    Alas, I can't measure the frames on those films, because the base and emulsion disintegrated moments after I copied the images. In fact, they were disintegrating *as* I copied them. I had to work fast. For those who are interested, I used a Nikon D7200 with a Nikkor 40mm f/2.8 macro lens and a Nikon ES-1 slide holder that I modified to hold bare film. This was before Nikon introduced the ES-2 holder that works with either slides or film.

    Later I found small original prints made from the same negatives. They were in poor condition, too, but I scanned them anyway.

    There is an interesting postscript to this story. One image I rescued showed my late father's bunk in the army barracks. Above his bed on a shelf were some framed pictures. One was his mother, and the other I recognized (from other pictures he took) as his high-school girlfriend. I tracked down the girlfriend, who was now living in a faraway nursing home. I introduced myself by email. (She had an iPad.) We never met, but we corresponded for years. Her memory was pretty good. She helped me identify people and places in some of my father's photos from the 1940s and was delighted to see them.

    Then came a day when my emails went unanswered. A few weeks later I found her obituary on the Internet. She had died one week after her 90th birthday.
  12. Tom, the camera in your first photo appears to be the post-war Universal model CX or Mercury II, which used normal 35mm film as mentioned by Glen. The pre-war camera did not have the smaller film indicator dial visible to the right of the soldier's thumb through the soft shell case.

    I have a Mercury II as well, but I have to strongly disagree with JDMvW's comments.

    The Mercury II certainly did survive the transition to standard 35mm cartridges. In fact, it was much more popular than the pre-war Mercury I, notably because the pre-war Mercury I's proprietary No.236 film was only ever offered in one emulsion, a Ultrapan Super-Speed made by Gevaert in Belgium for Universal. By transitioning to Kodak's 135 cartridge, Universal widely expanded the user base of the Mercury camera, notably because users now had a wider range of emulsions available, including the widely popular Kodachrome. If the question were to come up of which version of the Mercury is more popular, a survey of eBay listings for Mercury cameras would find that there are probably five Mercury IIs for every Mercury I listed at a given time. At the time of posting, I can find 18 Mercury II listed, and three Mercury I.

    univex 200.jpg

    Now as to the shutter, I will state that any 70 year old camera needs a CLA to work properly in this day and age, and the Mercury is no exception. That said, the rotary metal focal plane shutter is actually a very good and reliable design, the super speed CC-1500 shutter is perhaps pushing the limits of the design, but the normal 1/1000 shutter is often found working in some capacity today without any intervention, which is more than you can say for most other American focal plane shutters. This shutter was also the inspiration for the rotary focal plane shutter on the Pen F. It was tested by Harvard Observatory for astrophotography and found to be both more accurate and repeatable than its contemporary Leica or Contax models. I invite you to read Rick Olsen's material on the subject as well:

    I am not saying the Mercury is a perfect camera, it certainly has its flaws. The controls are too clustered around the lens barrel, the lack of a rangefinder is notable (although, perhaps, understandable given the 35mm focal length and depth of field that results) and the body alloy does not age gracefully.

    That said, I think it deserves a bit more respect than it gets. It's a good design that came out of a company that wasn't hampered by previous designs and thus able to innovate outside of convention. In the end, the camera wasn't doomed by it's design, but by a poor economy during the Korean war, an improperly managed company resulting in financial insolvency and cheaper foreign imports of Japanese and German 35mm cameras.

    I like my Mercury, the main thing that keeps me from shooting it is the fact that you get 65 frames on a 36 exposure roll and that's a bit much to shoot in a single outing. Though, I'm getting into bulk loading for the purpose of loading shorter rolls, so that may change soon.
  13. I haven't tried timing the shutter on mine, so it might be slow, but close enough.
    Since I only have one, I can't say much about how likely one is to work, but also there
    aren't so many things to go wrong.

    And yes, the 65 exposures is one to discourage me. Also, the viewfinder is not
    so easy to use.
  14. Might need a little fresh grease/oil, Glen.
    You can access the shutter somewhat by removing the back of the top of the housing.
    My Mercury II was full of dried grease when I initially got it. Had to flush it repeatedly with naphtha to get it out.

    The M2 High-Speed tractor was used as an aircraft tug. It also featured a winch and an auxillary generator and air compressor running off the engine that would help starting aircraft engines in cold weather.
  15. Dustin McAmera

    Dustin McAmera Yorkshire, mostly on film.

    I measured the image of the film gate of the Mercury I in this picture by Dirk Spennemann (in the Camera-wiki pool at Flickr);
    Univex Mercury I

    As I viewed the jpg in Paint, it was 169 pixels high and 129 wide; I assumed we could rely on 24mm high, and that gives you 18.3mm wide; close enough to proper half-frame as you could want, to the accuracy of the measurement. But Glen seemed pretty sure of what he said above; so then I found this page at Kurt Munger's blog:
    Mercury II 35mm F/2.7 review - Photo Jottings

    He gives the size of the film gate of a Mercury II as 19x25mm, and that's consistent with the proportions I got in pixels. So I'm going to add those dimensions to the wiki page, seeing as I have a respectable source who says he measured it.

    If you have your hands on a camera that's rare, or even a common one that's not well-described in the wiki, accurate details are always welcome! You can post them at Flickr, or register to edit the wiki yourself. You need to get one of the admins to do that (because when we allowed self-registration we got so much spam); again, the Flickr group is the easiest point of contact:
  16. We always say 24x36 for full frame.
    Measuring to the nearest (and pretty close) the distance for 8 perforations is 38mm, so 36mm plus 2mm gap.

    In any case, frame sizes vary between cameras.

    At one point, I was trying to remember which camera I used for a roll of film, and decided that the rounding of the corners of the frame was different enough to tell.

    When Kodak designed the Instamatic 126 cartridge, they decided to avoid the uncertainty in framing by pre-exposing frame boundaries.

    Measuring what I believe is from a Canon Demi (which I only had one roll through) the width is close to 17.5mm.
    I suspect that is more usual, and rounded to 18mm.

    Measuring negatives from the Hg2, the frame width is 19mm, height is 25mm (it goes right up to the perforation edge), and frame spacing is 21mm, so including a 2mm gap.

    A half-frame camera could get to 18mm with a 1mm gap. That is pretty close, though.

    Measuring height on some 35mm full frame rolls, it is very close to 24mm, and width very close to 36mm.

    In any case, I agree with the 25mm x 19mm frame for the Hg2. I suspect my scanner only goes to 24mm, though.
    Maybe less, as I don't usually get any frame edge in view.
  17. My II works great even with color film, but, as has been said, 65 shots is a deterrent to common use. Whatever happened to 20 shot rolls?
  18. They stopped making 20 shot rolls, and changed to 24.

    But if you pay for processing, other than the cost of prints, it is usually the same as for 36.
    And doing it yourself, it takes just as long to develop.

    So I usually don't use them.

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