The Robot series was introduced in 1935 by Otto Berning & Co., which was based in Schwelm, former West Germany, not far from Cologne. The Robots were a range of cameras with spring-wound motors so one could take many photos consecutively at high speed with winding the camera only once. It had a rotary shutter, unusual to find in still cameras but common in movie cameras, which usually also featured spring motors. The Robots had interchangeable lenses with a 26mm screw mount, until the introduction of the Robot Royal rangefinder models, which used a bayonet mount. Most Robots used 135 film and had a square 24x24mm format. A variety of cassettes was needed for film supply and uptake, only later models (from the Robot IIa onwards) used standard 135 film cassettes and featured rewind knobs.
Berning Robot I
The Robot I was invented by Henri Killfit, who received further fame after WWII for the Kilfitt macro lenses and the Mecaflex miniature SLR, amongst others. Three different lenses were available, a 30mm Carl Zeiss Tessar with f/2.8 or f/3.5 aperture, or an f/3.5 Meyer Primotar. A Schneider 50mm f/5.5 Telexenar represented the telelens range. Remember, due to the smaller square format the focal length of the lenses was shorter than those of equivalent full-frame lenses.
A 1935 Robot I with interchangeable Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 30mm f/2.8 lens. The speed knob next to the lens also had a lever used to swivel a built-in yellow filter behind the lens. This example is somewhere mid-production, earlier production had somewhat smaller windknobs and a slightly different viewfinder, whereas later production had an extra ring at the base of the central wind knob which functioned as a shutter lock (see below).
The Robots were often called spy cameras, as they were small and could be concealed after winding up, making photos without the need of winding after each frame. The Robot I could also 'peek around the corner' by swivelling the viewfinder 90 degrees, as shown here. In this mode the viewfinder showed a blue filter, which gave a better impression of the dark-light contrast of the scene for black and white photography.
As to the name Robot, I am not quite sure that in the early 1930s one thought of robots the same way as we do now, but the advertising brochures did show a robot-like creature. Perhaps these were wind-up toys that could walk by themselves? I can only assume that the camera was named that way because of its similar automatic features and needed winding up.
A later version of the Robot I with a ring to block the shutter so it couldn't accidentally be fired. There's a flash sync above the speed knob, but this is probably a later addition. Also shown is a Robot I cassette, which differed from those of later Robot models. Like the Robot I above, this one also has a Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar lens, but with a slightly longer focal length of 32.5 mm. I am not sure if there was a real difference or that the new number more accurately reflected the actual focal length of the lens.
Berning Robot II
The 1938 Robot II was the second model and formed the base of many subsequent models until the redesigned Royal rangefinder models. It was small, robust camera with a build-in double viewfinder with eyepieces at the rear and side of the camera. It used two separate cassettes for film supply and uptake, labelled T and N cassettes, respectively. Although the cassettes made using the camera a little tedious, they were cleverly designed, as they would slightly open to make film transport possible only when the camera back was closed. Hence, accidentally opening the camera with film loaded would only spoil a small bit of film, but not the film inside the cassettes.
A 1947 Robot II with Schneider 40mm f/1.9 Xenon lens and yellow filter attached. This example is a late version with accessory shoe and small flash sync socket.
Top view of a Robot II showing the large round motor wind knob. Also note the coloured lens markings, which aided finding the right aperture for the desired depth of field from close range to infinity.
Rear view of a Robot II showing the fairly small film gate (25x25mm according information on the web but really only 23x23mm). On the right the 'N' uptake cassette is present, on the left the 'T' supply cassette is missing. Standard 135 film cassettes do not fit the Robot II, neither do the later TR and NR cassettes (as I learned the hard way).
A rather rare black Robot II was also produced, in fact in at least two different varieties. One version had a larger wind knob which allowed up to fifty photos for one wind cycle, this model was used by the German airforce (Luftwaffe) and had serial numbers starting with an F, e.g., F50039-6. Another version was identical to regular Robot II but with black painted top and bottom plates and often a black wind knob. They had regular Robot II serial numbers, five digits preceded by a letter B, but often had a single digit suffix of which the meaning is not clear to me. They came most commonly with a CZJ Tessar lens marked f=3¾ cm, which is an updated version of the Tessar found on the Robot I.
Black version of the Robot II with uncoated Carl Zeiss Tessar 37.5mm f/3.5 lens. Based on the serial number of the lens, this Robot appears to be an early pre-war version of around 1938. The camera looks like it has been repainted, but it was probably black originally.
The Tessar on this Robot was a great little lens, it even had click stops on the focus ring so one could focus the lens without taking your eye off the viewfinder, once you memorised where the click stops were. This camera was truly build for speed.
Berning Robot Royal 36
The Robot Royal range represented a significant redesign of the earlier Robots and was first introduced around 1953. The Royals were considerable larger and heavier than their predecessors, as they were rangefinder cameras designed to be able to use the full frame 36x24mm format, although the first version still used the regular square format like the earlier Robots. The Royal 36 was an improved version of the original Royal and was introduced alongside the square format Royal 24 and the (extremely rare) half-frame Royal 18, the number indicating the frame width in mm.
Robot Royal 36 with Schneider 50mm f/1.9 Xenon lens. Because of the different frame sizes of the different Royals, one has to take care which lens the camera comes with. For example, the Royal 24 came with a 40mm Xenon lens, but I am not sure if it would cover the full 36mm frame.
Another important difference with previous Robot models was the Royal lens mount, which was a bayonet mount, the lens being secured by twisting a large lever at the bottom of the mount. I have grabbed this lever several times thinking it was the focus lever, but thankfully it does not twist easily as otherwise the lens would have been on the floor! Like the previous models, the Royal could use regular film cassettes, but still needed a dedicated take-up cassette, the NR. The spring motor allowed up to 24 shots to be taken consecutively without have to wind the camera.
Top view of the Robot Royal 36. Note the colour-coded depth of field markings on the lens, a typical Robot feature already present on the Robot I.
Rear view of the Robot Royal 36 showing the 36x24mm film frame. Also note the small lever beneath the accessory shoe, which was to lock the shutter (red dot) or to rewind film (R). Moving the lever would also block the view through the viewfinder to warn the user the shutter was locked or set to rewind. Rewinding was only necessary when using a regular film cassette, not when using the Robot TR cassette.