July 2013 marks the 75th anniversary of the Super Kodak Six-20, the first production camera to feature automatic exposure (AE) control. Aimed at removing the exposure guesswork for photographers, the camera’s shutter-preferred AE control meant that the photographer chose the shutter speed and the camera would then “choose” the correct lens opening. Kodak’s engineers accomplished this feat by mechanically coupling a selenium photo cell light meter, located just above the top half of the camera’s folding clamshell.
This advancement, though groundbreaking, was not picked up by most camera manufacturers for some twenty years after the debut of the Super Six-20. These days, automatic exposure is a standard feature on almost all cameras. And it is not much of a stretch to call the Super Kodak Six-20 the first “smart camera.”
But auto exposure was not the only cutting-edge feature of the Super Six-20. It was also the first Kodak camera to use a common window for both the rangefinder and viewfinder. The film advances with a single-stroke lever, which also cocks the shutter at the end of the stroke, thus preventing double exposures. And like auto exposure, these features would not become common on cameras for many years.
Features aside, the Super Kodak Six-20 is one of the most attractive cameras ever marketed. Its lovely clamshell exterior design was styled by legendary industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague.
All this innovation came at a rather high price and not without some issues. The Super Kodak Six-20 retailed for $225 in 1938 (that would be over $2,000 today) and it had a reputation for being somewhat unreliable—the built-in self-timer was known to lock up the shutter. Since few models were manufactured, some 719, it is highly sought after by camera collectors.
Todd Gustavson is the curator of technology at George Eastman House, working with the collection for more than 20 years.. He is also the co-owner of Walbokat, an 18 foot 1954 Chris Craft Riviera Runabout, shown at dusk at the main dock in Chautauqua, NY.