The Space Oddity Realist

No doubt some of the more advanced collectors, upon reading this, could get their knickers in a twist, so let's just pretend its a good fiction "Who done it?" story and go from there.

Some time back I bought a Realist "Prototype" camera. Its fairly certain this is not an officially sanctioned David White experimental department camera. Knowing that, we must ask ourselves why did someone go to the effort to build a fixed focus Realist? The short and obvious answer is its a fake, intended to separate some poor fool from his money. Based on the fact it has had three known owners, and is storied to have originated with at least a fourth, nobody made any money on this thing. If built from scratch as a forgery, it failed. Having said that, let us now suspend belief, examine the camera, and weave a story.

The probable case for a fixed focus Realist is simple. The post war stereo boom was short and sharp. It gathered steam in the late 1940s and was pretty much over by 1960. If David White built roughly 125,000 Realist cameras, and had reached serial number 100,000 by 1954, then what would a graph of production volume look like? Might I suggest the edge of the Marianas trench? It wasn't just that the market dried up. By the mid 1950s, a host of companies including names like Kodak, were churning out cheap and cheerful stereo cameras by the hundreds of thousands. In fact, I believe in a few short years Kodak managed to double the output of David White.

As any businessman involved in manufacturing will tell you. A big competitor with a cheaper product spells trouble. From the outset, the Realist was an expensive camera to make, and it sold for a retail price in accordance with its cost and position as market innovator. Along comes Kodak with an inexpensive molded Bakelite chassis and stamped aluminum caps - DW had to come up with a cheaper camera or get pushed aside.

Short of a complete redesign, the only possibility was to simplify the existing camera. The automotive industry today refers to this as decontenting. What could be done to remove costs? Cheaper components, fewer of them and simplified manufacturing operations are key. Reducing the parts count helps as well.

What if a creative person, knowing the market situation, sees in his mind a way to build a cheaper Realist. Might he not build a prototype, perhaps even in his spare time, for presentation to his boss? In my own company's R&D shop, the guys play blacksmith all the time. Its much easier to explain a concept if they can show management some form of model or functioning example of their ideas. The raw materials to construct such "unauthorized" prototypes are always at hand. Manufacturer's samples, defective parts, superceded parts, etc. all are readily available from bench tops and bin boxes scattered around the shop. Such items, having no further value, are rarely accounted for.

A technician could easily have assembled a concept camera from worthless spare parts. What if he showed it to somebody who liked the idea, so it got marched up the chain, and word came down to build "official" prototypes for management approval. In my business (automotive accessories) this scenario has played itself out on many occasions. Have a look under hoods in our parking lot and you will see some rough, unique and otherwise very non standard looking accessoriess. Some failed to make the cut. Others are now in our catalogs.

In trying to understand this camera, I have been told there were about a dozen fixed focus Realist cameras built. They were similar to this camera, but had a unique ƒ4.5 lens and the black surfaces were finished in a pebble grain. My camera has a smooth surface under the paint and the lenses are run of the mill David White ƒ3.5 Anastigmats. It has been repeatedly pointed out these lenses were not correct on an early body (serial 0238). I agree, but I also wonder if maybe this body never became a camera until long after its sibblings had arrived in the hands of happy customers. What if this particular body casting was never finish machined, and hung around the shop collecting dust until somebody had a bright idea.