Flash Photography ~ History & ILFORD Flashguns

Charlie Kamerman has sent me some interesting pictures relating to early flash photography. These can be viewed here:
please read on.

General History of Flash Photography

The following history of flash photography is based upon extracts from the Editor's Viewpoint column within the October 1958 issue of Miniature Camera Magazine (MCM) and an article entitled 'The Fundamentals of Flash'. Both were by the same author, Percy W Harris, FIBP, Hon.FRPS, FPSA.

"Flashlight photography began as long as nearly a hundred years ago. In 1859 William Crookes (later Sir William Crookes) employed the brilliant light obtained by burning magnesium to take photographs, and in 1865 Traill Taylor, whose name is perpetuated in the Royal Photographic Society's Traill Taylor Memorial Lectures, made a rapidly-burning flashlight powder from magnesium, potassium chlorate, sulphur and antimony sulphide. E. A. Kenyon followed in 1883 with experiments employing mixtures of magnesium powder with pure potassium chlorate, and took portraits by this means. The resultant smoke, however, caused so much trouble that he gave it up.

Because the early mixed powders were very dangerous, considerable popularity was obtained for special flashlamps in which pure powdered magnesium was blown through a spirit flame which gave plenty of light (and smoke!) but was free from the risk of explosion. Later, other workers produced better powder formulations which were safer than the early compounds. These could be placed in a little pile and ignited either by a slow burning fuse or a taper. Still later, clockwork devices, which were used by spinning a steel wheel against the "flint" of a cigarette lighter, set off the powder at the right moment when the trigger was pressed.

But the trouble with all of flash powder was that it remained intrinsically dangerous. Its use could cause nasty burns if the powder was accidentally ignited, and the result of the flash powder burning so rapidly was to produce a cloud of white smoke which drifted up to the ceiling and a few minutes later decided to come down again and deposit a fine white powder on everybody. By this time the professional photographer at banquets took good care to be well away from the vicinity. In fact so much trouble was caused, and so many cases of ignited curtains occurred, that flashlight photography was frequently forbidden.

A big step forward came with the introduction of a device known as the 'Sashalight' (around 1930, see below). This looked much like an electric light bulb, inside which was a crumpled sheet of metal foil, enclosed in an atmosphere of oxygen. In the position where the filament of a conventional light bulb would be, there was a small fuse. When the bulb was connected to an ordinary torch battery, the fuse ignited and set fire to the foil, which burnt rapidly and very brilliantly. A lot of these early bulbs gave trouble and sometimes exploded, but these difficulties were soon overcome.

A further improvement, with a big increase in reliability and constancy of light output, came with the introduction of a mass of very fine wire as the ignition material for finely shredded foil. In a few cases, a special paste was moulded to the fuse, something like the head of a large match. This burnt just as quickly and brilliantly as the foil or wire. The 'pre-flash' pressure of oxygen in these bulbs was very low since, if it were ordinary atmospheric pressure, the heat generated would bring about such an expansive pressure increase that the bulb would inevitably burst. The 'pre-flash' pressure was therefore kept quite low, although there was still adequate oxygen to provide complete ignition. Occasionally faulty or cracked bulbs might burst if air had entered and raised the internal 'pre-flash' pressure, but the user was safeguarded by manufacturers coating their bulbs with a sort of elastic varnish which prevented fragments of glass envelope being scattered, even if it burst. Flashguns were eventually equipped with transparent guards as further protection.

When flashbulbs were first used it was necessary for the user to open the camera shutter, manually trigger the firing of the flash bulb, and then close the shutter again, all as rapidly as possible. This technique was known as 'open flash'.

Press photographers took to flash bulbs like ducks to water. The fire risk was negligible, there was no smoke and they were no longer prevented from taking flash photographs at banquets and other internal functions where for some time flash powder had been banned. It soon became evident, however, that the procedure of opening the shutter, firing the flash bulb, and closing the shutter again was very awkward as, in many cases, it involved two people, one to handle the camera and the other to fire the flash.

An ingenious press man in New York made a little attachment for his camera, consisting of the magnet from an electric bell, and one or two other oddments so arranged that when a button was pressed the current from the battery flowed through the windings of the electromagnet and drew down an armature at the same time that it fired the flash bulbs; the moving armature was arranged that it depressed the shutter release. In this way the necessity for a second person was obviated; one touch of the button would operate both the shutter and ignite the flash bulb. The name of a 'synchroniser' was soon given to this device and, before long, a number of them with sundry improvements appeared on the market. They were not very satisfactory at first, for two reasons. Up to that time the flash bulb manufacturers had not taken any particular trouble to standardise the firing time of their bulbs i.e.the interval between switching on the igniting current, and the maximum light emission being obtained, varied. The second point was that, if switching on the current took place at the same moment as the shutter release was depressed, the shutter would operate virtually instantaneously, but there would be a delay, maybe as long as l/50th second, before the bulb ignited and reached iuts maximum light emission. The ideal conditions required that the shutter should open just as the bulb started to burn, so that the peak light of the bulb would occur at the middle of the shutter-opening time. When this was realised, the manufacturers of the synchronisers introduced a slight delaying mechanism, so that when the gun release was pressed the current was immediately switched on, but the shutter was not operated until a small fraction of a second later, this fact being adjusted to suit the delay in the bulb. Later, the firing delay of the bulb became standardised, with bulbs being classified under the headings of F, M, S and FP. The "time to peak" of the F type was not exceeding 12msecs; the M type 20msecs; the S type 30msecs and the FP type having a delay from 30 to 40msecs. The special feature of FP bulbs is that they give a long flash of fairly level intensity throughout the 'slit' travel of a focal plane shutter.

The early synchronised flashguns usually had the delay mechanism inbuilt, e.g. by a train of gears or by the rotation of a fairly heavy flywheel, and the delay was adjustable. On some press cameras a solenoid was fitted, similar to the earlier improvised synchronisers, so that the actual mechanical movement of the shutter release was performed electrically. One of the best and most reliable synchronised flashguns produced in the UK was the Burvin in 1934, which was designed by Colonel W. M. Burden, R.E., a skilled engineer who was also a keen amateur photographer, together with Lancelot Vining the well-known press photographer. This collaboration of the engineer and the experienced press man was an admirable one, for Vining knew all of the "snags" of the existing American flashguns, and particularly those of the solenoid type. The action of the Burvin was mechanical throughout and the delay was accurately adjustable. However, such external (to the camera shutter) synchronisers became unnecessary as shutters appeared (1940-1950 and subsequently) with built-in flash synchronisation."

Magnesium Ribbon

The earliest flash photography used magnesium ribbon or powder, ignited on a tray, to provide a brief flash of bright light, for about 1/10th of a second. The technique was not without its obvious dangers and it also released a lot of smoke, smell and a fall-out of white ash.

Flash pictures had to be taken by mounting the camera on a tripod, opening the shutter, igniting the ribbon or powder, and then reclosing the shutter. The advert (left) was taken from Amateur Photographer magazine for 30th November 1949, showing how the technique, albeit using flash powder (see below), was still in use up to the 1950s.

The Amateur Photographer & Cinematographer magazine for November 27th 1935 contains an interesting article (p508 'Topics of the Week') entitled "Magnesium Ribbon, Age 72 Years" (implying 1863; but also see the MCM article, above). The AP article reads:

"Now that so many photographers can take portraits at night by the aid of artificial light, thanks mainly to improved sensitive materials and electric lighting, a correspondent recalls the fact that one day this week is the seventy-second anniversary of the introduction of magnesium ribbon or wire. In 1863 the manufacture of magnesium was commenced in Manchester, and during the last week of November of that year, at a Manchester scientific society, Professor H.E.Roscoe exhibited the light emitted by burning a piece of magnesium ribbon or wire 1mm in diameter and 10ft long.

Mr.A.Brothers, who was at the meeting, secured a piece of the wire and a few days later reported some experiments he had made with it, chief of which was the copying of an engraving by the light given out by the wire. At that time the price of the wire was half-a-crown (i.e. 2s.6d; 12.5new pence) per foot, and only small quantities were obtainable. 'To-day' (1935) it is from 1s. 9d. to 2s. per ounce. Early in 1864, three photographers working together managed to get a good negative in the Blue John Mine in Derbyshire by the light from magnesium, and in May of the same year it was used to make a portrait of Dr.Faraday at the Royal Institution in London. Since these historical initial efforts, magnesium in the form of wire or powder has been widely used by photographers.


Magnesium ribbon, as sold by Johnsons of Hendon until at least the mid-1960s. It was sold as a 1ounce (1oz) coil, price 2s/9d (14p). The price stayed remarkably constant, from the early 1950s through to 1965. The coil of ribbon was about 12m long, with the ribbon itself being 3mm wide and 0.4mm thick.

Two holders for magnesium ribbon. Although re-fillable with care, its likely they were sold complete with ribbon and intended to be discarded when empty.
The 'Pistol Flashmeter' had ribbon of similar size to that sold by Johnsons, but the 'Flashmeter' ribbon was slightly narrower, maybe 2.5mm.
The holders were held in the hand, a length of ribbon withdrawn and then ignited by a match or lighter. Only the exposed ribbon burnt (with a brilliant white 'actinic' light), so it was 'safe' to hand hold.
The manufacturer's instructions are shown below.


Alongside is a Kodak (Kingsway, London, WC2) version of a magnesium ribbon holder.

This image was sent to me by Paul Kay. He says the item was "picked up at a car boot for a pittance".

The Shire book "Photographic Accessories 1890-1970", by Robert White, suggests (p22) ribbon holders in general date from around 1910 to 1940. A code number on the Kodak instruction leaflet reads C.P. (possibly 1930 ??)

Flash Powder
The use of flash powder, based upon magnesium, continued in use to (at least) the mid-1950s, because early flash bulbs (c1930 and onwards) were prohibitively expensive for many amateurs.

Kevin MacDonnell, in Photography magazine for January 1981, describes using flash powder "...an explosive mixture of magnesium powder, potassium chlorate and antimony sulphide, which scared me stiff no matter how often I used it." He continued "Supplied in two bottles, the technique was to first of all pour some of the magnesium powder from its container onto a folded sheet of paper. You then replaced the cork tightly in the bottle and put it well to one side. Next you poured some of the 'igniting compound', consisting of the other two chemicals, out of their bottle onto the magnesium lying on the paper and again replaced the cork tightly. The two powders were then shaken together gently. Now came the exciting part ! You had a flashgun complete with a metal tray with a handle and some form of ignition. The one I used had a hammer like that of a shotgun which, when released, fell on a huge explosive cap, while another worked like an old wheel lock pistol, a spring driven steel wheel revolving against a flint. You cocked the flashgun, poured the contents of the folded paper onto the tray, held the gun above your head, uncapped the lens, uttered a short but devout prayer and pulled the trigger. If all went well a sheet of white flame was produced, varying in height from 6" to a foot (12" = 300mm), depending upon the amount of powder. If you were unlucky, however, one of two things could happen. In damp or humid weather, of if the bottles had not been tightly corked, the powder could 'cake' and then, instead of a flash, you got a genuine explosion like that of a small hand grenade which, if you had been generous with the amount of powder, could blow off your fingers! Alternatively, when you pressed the trigger nothing at all happened and the natural reaction was to lower the gun and look into the tray. The action would disturb the powder and it could go off as you looked at it. Everyone had some horrifying story to tell about flash powder."

Paul Godfrey has sent me an extract about flash powder from an ancient edition of "The ILFORD Manual of Photography", numbered the 310,000th copy (a number which suggests it was published around the mid-1920s). The extract can be read here.

ALSO, an extract from a Kodak Magazine dated November 1926 (being a complimentary copy from Wallace Heaton) that has an article about flash photograph. Paul scanned this article from a magazine owned by Jim Fisk.

Thanks to Brian Rees, I now have experience of using flash powder. Brian donated the 4oz tin of Johnson(s of Hendon) No.2 FlashPowder shown alongside.

The original instructions for using the No.2 FlashPowder can be viewed here. An experiment to see if the powder would still produce a FLASH is described here.

Paul Godfrey describes his experiences with a Johnsons flash powder 'flashlamp' (identical to the Magney Powder Flashgun shown at the top of this page) and some 'do-it-yourself' flashpowder here. Johnson's Flashpowder adverts, scanned by Paul from 1930s AP magazines can be viewed here.

As supplied, the smaller can & the 'touch paper' were both packed inside the large tin.

Johnsons apparently sold flash powder until the mid-1960s, evidenced by the tin (above) carrying instructions which refer to Johnsons' Solufin developer, which itself wasn't marketed until the autumn of 1964. However, adverts for flash powder are scarce after the mid-1950s.

With reference to the picture above, right, the smaller tin contained a white powder and the large tin contained a dark grey/purple powder. Strips of white 'touch-paper' were contained in the small brown envelope.

Despite its claimed non-deliquescent properties, over the 40+years since the mixture was manufactured the grey powder (especially) had caked into a firm mass but could still be crumbled into fine particles.

Johnsons supplied two types of flash powder. The No.1 was called Professional and gave a flash of very high actinic value with a minimum of smoke and dust, a combination claimed to make it more suitable for use in banquets and theatrical parties and for large groups and interiors. It was sold in 1oz, 4oz and 8oz bottles, priced 3s.9d (19p), 9s (45p) and 14s.3d (71p) respectively.

The No.2 was recommended for amateur use, and in all circumstances where the smoke produced would not be judged unacceptable e.g. outdoors using a small charge of Flashpowder to augment daylight or inside factories. This flash powder was supplied in 1oz, 4oz (see above) and 8oz tins, priced 3s (15p), 7s.6d (38p) and 13s.6d (68p) respectively.


Another version of the above 1oz (28.4gm) size of Johnsons of Hendon No.2 Flash Powder, but packaged differently from above (again, donated by Brian Rees).

Instead of a small tin inside the outer tin, this packaging has the white powder (to be mixed with the grey powder in the main tin) in a small plastic capped glass bottle. The lid of the glass bottle was apparently secured for transit by sticky tape (as can be seen in the picture - left). The 'touch paper' and the instruction leaflet are missing from this example.

The glass bottle must have been less robust than a small tin, so perhaps the use of a small tin, inserted inside the outer tin (as above), was a later (improved) packaging compared to the arrangement shown left.


A small box (7.5x4.5x2.5cm) of flashpowder, as sold by Johnson & Sons, Manufacturing Chemists, from 23, Cross Street, Finsbury, London, E.C; their address pre-1927.

The instructions read:
"Add the contents of the smaller tube to the powder in the larger tube. Shake thoroughly. Use on a tin lid. Place the mixture in a heap or a 'train' on the tin lid. Place a piece of the Touch Paper vertically in it and light the top. For an ordinary portrait use 10grains (0.65gram). For small groups use 30-40grains".

"When all the arrangements for taking the photograph have been made, place the required amount of powder in a heap on a tin lid well away from any inflammable material. Arrange a piece of Touch Paper vertically in the heap and ignite this paper at the top.
Do not allow the powder to remain exposed too long, as it has a tendency to become damp and unfit to use."

To the left is a 1oz (28.4gm) version of the Johnson & Sons No.2 flashpowder (this example donated by Brian Rees).

Although the company name is still Johnson & Sons, the address is now the more familiar "Hendon, London, N.W.4", so this example post-dates the packaging immediately above, but pre-dates the other packagings shown further above. I suspect it dates to the mid-1940s. Instructions on the tin read:
"Add the white powder to the gey in the tin. Replace the lid and shake until the powders are thoroughly mixed. The powder is now ready for use as a Flash Powder, but must not be used in any enclosed receptacle.
For Portraits, use about 10grains (0.65gramme)
For Small Groups, use about 20grains (1.3gramme)
For Large Groups, use about 90grains (5.8gramme).

In the example shown left, the only powder is grey in colour and is all contained within the glass, cork stoppered, container shown alongside the tin. The glass container fits neatly within the tin, protected by a corrugated cardboard liner. There doesn't seem to be room in the tin for a separate container of white powder, but that must have been the case, since on the glass container there are instructions reading:
"Add the contents of the smaller tube to this powder & shake thoroughly. The flash powder is then ready for use, but must be kept well corked."
From this, it seems likely that the two powders, in the example here, have already been mixed together by the original user.


10grms of "Agfa" Flashlight powder.

The cardboard tube shown to the immediate left contained the two tins (to the left of the cardboard tube), one with a screw cap (the lower one) and the other (with the blue label) with a push-on lid, plus the red packet of 'Salpeterpapier' (i.e. touch paper).

Inside the screw capped tin is grey powder, looking very much the same as the Johnsons flash powder.
Agfa, however, made claims for its superiority here in:
THE "AGFA"-BOOK OF Photographic Formulae, Edited by GEORGE L. BARROWS Published by BERLIN ANILINE WORKS:
"Agfa"-Blitzlicht is a scientific combination of chemicals of a different composition than the usual Magnesium and Potassium Chlorate mixture and possess the follow-
ing undisputed advantages:

1. Minimum smoke development.
2. Maximum amount of light.
3. The most rapid flash.
4. Silent discharge.
5. No danger of explosion.
6. Convenient packing.
7. Economy in use.

Inside the blue labelled tin (see picture to the far right) is a roll of corrugated cardboard, protecting a small glass bottle, closed by a cork bung, plus a small metal scoop, which the instructions on the screw capped bottle suggest has a capacity of ½grm when it holds a level scoop full.

Instructions on this blue label tin say (in less than good English !):
"Mix the contents of the small bottle, enclosed herein, with the Magnesium, by shaking well and keep the mixture well closed, especially while exposing. If the contents of the small bottle are no more dry as a powder, do not mix but return to us the glass to get a fesh one."
Made in Germany

Quantities to use, as shown on the label around the main cardboard packaging tube, are:
For portraits, about ¼grm
Small groups, about 1grm
Large groups, about 2-3grms
Very large groups, about 4-6grms.

1 level measure spoonful equals ½gramme.

Flash Bulbs ~ History

I understand from Brian Wilkinson (PCCGB Member) that the modern form of Flash Bulb was patented in 1925 by Dr Paul Vierkotter in Germany, though flash bulbs using magnesium ribbon date back to around 1900. Wikipedia says "The flash-lamp was invented by Joshua Cohen (a.k.a. Joshua Lionel Cowen of the Lionel toy train fame) in 1899. It was granted U.S. patent number 636,492."

Amateur Photographer magazine for 10th September 1930 contains a report (page 244) on the 'Sashalite' flashbulb:

"According to the 'Morning Post', flashpowder is likely to be superseded for photographic purposes. The British rights in a new invention have been acquired by Mr. Alexander Stewart, a professional photographer carrying on business under the name of Sasha- hence the word coined for the lamp - 'Sashalite'.
This lamp is an oxygen-filled bulb in which aluminium foil is burned, ignition being accomplished by a 4-volt battery. No details are given as to whether bulbs will be available for charges of different capacity, but it is clear that no single charge of foil would be suitable for all conditions and circumstances.
It is claimed that the light, although powerful, is soft and diffused, less trying to the eyes than flashpowder, and that there is neither noise nor smoke when the charge is fired. As has been claimed, it will now be possible to take photographs in circumstances where the use of powder is out of the question-for example, in coal mines and operating theatres.
The 'Morning Post' published some exclusive photographs, taken with the 'Sashalite' of the engine-room and other compartments of a submarine. These were not only interesting as unusual subjects, but they indicated a high technical standard. The manufacture of the lamps has already commenced, and professional and commercial photographers particularly will await further information with considerable interest."

"Judging from the information given, the 'Sashalite' is strongly reminiscent of a lamp invented about 1900 by Mr.Smith of the Platinotype Co. An improved form, specially adapted for studio portraiture, was fully illustrated and described in the issue of "Photography" for March 7th, 1901, page 180, as follows:
"Inside a globe was an arrangement for carrying twelve strips of magnesium ribbon, each isolated so that it could be burnt without affecting the other strips. Oxygen was passed into the globe, and the ribbon was burnt by making electric contact which caused a fine wire to become white hot so that it ignited a small piece of touch-paper in contact with the ribbon. A single length of ribbon was sufficient for an ordinary portrait.
When all the strips of ribbon had been used it was an easy matter to recharge the globe. Provision was made for taking up, by means of a rubber bag, the products of combustion, and for refilling the globe with oxygen. The whole thing was highly effective for its purpose, but was not comparable with the compact equipment of the modern Press photographer. The "Sashalite" is therefore likely to become very popular for difficult subjects."

See also images relating to Sashalite here (from Charlie Kamerman) including (2nd image down), an instruction leaflet from the packaging of a 'Baby' Sashalite bulb (supplied by Brian Rees). To save this instruction leaflet as a pdf, click here.

Michael Langford in his book "The Story of Photography" agrees with the date of 1925 for the arrival of 'modern' flashbulbs, though Brian Coe and Paul Gates in their excellent book "The Snapshot Photograph - The rise of Popular Photography, 1888-1939" (ISBN 004069 14 1) tells us that the flashbulb was a development of the 1930s (probably referring to a time when flash bulbs became mass produced and entered general usage).

Flash bulbs were relatively expensive for the first two or more decades of their mass availability. It wasn't until the introduction of small capless bulbs in 1955 that their cost became acceptable to most ordinary amateurs. Hence the continued use of flash powder into the 1950s.

In the 'Readers Write' section of Amateur Photographer magazine for 2nd February 1966, a Mr.D.S.Smith admonishes a Mr.M.Russell for complaining that flash costs were still high in 1966 at 9d (4p) per bulb. Mr Smith writes:
Mr.M.Russell of Oxford complains about the cost of flashbulbs at 9d each. I beg to differ from him.
I started as an amateur in 1946, soon became interested in flash photography, and was pleased to obtain some Sashalite bulbs at 2s (10p) each. Remember, this was 20 years ago when a £1 was worth a £1, not 12s 6d (62.5p) or whatever it is now. These bulbs were the size of a l00w household lamp, and could not be used at faster than 1/25 sec as their time to peak was not consistent, the burning time being about 1/25 sec, give or take a few milliseconds!
I then graduated through Philips PF14s at, I believe, 1s.1d each (5.5p), PF25s at 1s.6d or 1s.9d (8p), PF24s at 2s each (10p) for focal plane use on my pre-war Leica purchased for £89.10s (£89 50p) in 1949 and Speed Midgets at 1s.3d (6p).
In 1951 I took the plunge and bought my first electronic flash. It weighed 171b (7.7kg), cost more than £60 and gave no more light than an A.G.1 Today's amateur never had it so good with all the moderate priced equipment available, with specifications never dreamt of at the price in my early days. If Mr. Russell still thinks flashbulbs are expensive, he should stop grousing and get one of the very moderately priced electronics (weight just a few ounces)."
London, N.1. D.S.SMITH.

A Kobold advertisement in the February 1959 edition of PhotoGuide Magazine, claimed that in 1958 ~ 10,000,000 flash bulbs were used in Britain and 800,000,000 in the USA.

Various metals were used to provide the 'flash' in flash bulbs. According to "Artificial Light and Photography" by Riek and Verbeek (Philips Technical Library), the light output from various metals, expressed in lumens per milligram, are:
Zirconium = 441; Magnesium = 700; Aluminium = 750; Aluminium with 8% Magnesium = 850. (Ref: AP magazine, Readers Ask, 16th May 1962).

Flash Synchronisation

By the late 1930s manufacturers began to incorporate flash synchronisation into their cameras. Brian Coe & Paul Gates suggest "the first mass produced camera with this facility being the Falcon Press Flash in 1939. Other early flash cameras were the Agfa Shur-Flash and the Kodak Six-20 Flash Brownie box camera, both of 1940." Brian Wilkinson adds the Kine Exakta of 1936 to this list.

Post-WW2, over the next 10 years, it became the 'norm' for cameras to be equipped with flash synchronised shutters and the retro-fitting of such a facility to non-synchronised shutters was also available e.g. Wallace Heaton charged £4 in October 1952 and this cost had fallen to 'only' £2.18s (£2.90p) 'for most shutters' by December 1954. Alternatively, it was possible to fit an attachment to the cable release socket which fired the shutter and the flashgun together.

However, the (subsequently universal) 3mm (1/8") coaxial plug didn't become the UK standard means of attaching a flashgun until perhaps the mid-1950s. Even then, simple box cameras continued to use proprietary plug fittings into the early 1960s. The German camera industry standardised on the 3mm coaxial plug rather earlier, no doubt influenced by the Zeiss organisation with its shares in both Gauthier & Compur shutters. The BJPA for 1953 describes a new range of Gauthier shutters, the 'Vario', 'Pronto', 'Prontor-S' and 'Prontor SV', all fitted with a 3mm coaxial flash synchronisation socket. The Synchro-Compur shutter of 1951 also featured this synchronisation connector.

It's probable that before 1953 the Prontor and Compur had different flash connectors, as flash leads for these two shutters in 1951 adverts are listed separately (see below). Perhaps the earlier Gauthier (Prontor) version was as on this pre-1950 Agfa Jsolette (Isolette) - the camera predates the fitting of an accessory shoe. Although at first glance it looks to be a normal 3mm coaxial, in fact it is slightly shorter and is of larger diameter near the base. A standard 3mm flash lead will not fit.
By 1953 Zeiss had standardised on the 3mm coaxial connector and this became known as the 'PC' flash connector, standing for Prontor-Compur. Here is one on a Prontor SVS shutter fitted to a Zeiss Nettar with f4.5 Novar lens.
Until the mid-1950s British built flashguns (especially) were made with the flash lead interchangeable, or at least specifiable on purchase. In Amateur Photographer magazine for March 7th 1951 issue there is a Bennett advertisement for flash leads; Selfix flash lead 7s/6d (37.5p), Compur flash lead 7s/6d, Robot flash lead 12s/6d (62.5p) and Prontor flash lead 12s/6d (postage 6d extra; 2.5p). The Ilford Advocate camera was sold complete with a flash lead fitted with the appropriate 2pin male plug (to fit the 2-pin female socket on the camera itself).
In AP for January 31st 1951 an Agilux flashgun featured in a Sands Hunter advert is described as having a 2-pin flash connector lead. Adapters for other shutter synchronisation connectors are listed separately; for an Epsilon shutter 7s/2d (36p), for a Prontor shutter 9s/2d (46p) and a Compur shutter 9s/2d. Its probable that the adapter for an Epsilon shutter is the same as was meant by a Selfix flash lead in the Bennet advert (above) as Ensign Selfix cameras used Epsilon shutters.

A very full set of flash lead converters was being advertised by Wallace Heaton even in the early 1960s. Their 1961-62 'Blue Book' lists the following converters to make your flashgun equipped with a 'standard' 3mm coaxial connector, fit the following cameras:
Semflex 9/3d (46p); Exakta 2-pin 5/9d (29p); Praktica 5/9d; Kodak A.S.A bayonet (presumably the American Standard) 3/9d (19p); Argus 5/9d; Old Prontor - 3.8mm 3/9d; Ensign bayonet 3/10d (19p); Leica M3 5/9d.

The A.S.A bayonet was (?) as illustrated left, fitted to a Kodak Dakon shutter on a Six-20 Folding Brownie, made in Gt.Britain between 1948 and 1954.

An attachment could convert a 3mm coaxial socket to receive a flashgun with an A.S.A bayonet plug, 5/9d. The illustration alongside, taken from Wallace Heaton's Blue Book, shows (LHS) the plug on the end of an A.S.A lead and (RHS) a converter to enable a shutter with a 3mm coaxial to use a an A.S.A flashgun.

Flashgun leads were also available to wire into a flashgun circuit and so change its shutter fitting. Leads to convert to:
Rollei 9/6d (47.5p); W.H. Compur type 5/- (25p); Reid 18/- (90p); Kodak A.S.A bayonet 6/- (30p); Agilux 6/6d (32.5p); Ilford Craftsman 5/4d (27p); Alpa 13/- (65p); Duolux 5/3d (26p).

ILFORD Flash Guns 1950s ~ 1960s

The Ilford booklet advertising "Photographic Materials & Accessories" (around 1955) from which the advert below is taken, illustrates and describes three flashguns capable of attaching to a synchronised shutter, the Envoy 'Minor', the Envoy 'Major' and the Envoy 'Zing'. "The type of camera connection lead required i.e. Compur, B.S.S. (a 2-pin female to fit the Ilford Envoy) or Ilford (2-pin male, to fit the Ilford Advocate and Craftsman), should be stated when ordering."

The Standard fitting on an Envoy Flash Gun lead was the female Envoy 2-pin (as picture, above).

The BJPA 1955 review (pages 228-229) of the Envoy Major and Envoy Minor flashguns read:
ENVOY MAJOR AND MINOR FLASHGUNS (Photo Developments Ltd., Leonard Road, Birmingham, 19. Marketed by Ilford Ltd., Ilford, London)

These two flashguns are of exactly similar outward appearance, the difference between them being simply that the Major is of the battery-capacitor type and the Minor is a straight-forward battery-powered gun.

The body of the guns is a reasonably compact and rectangular black plastic moulding carrying the 5in. reflector on its front face. The size of the body is 3½ x 2¾ x 1.375in, and in the case of the Minor gun this just comfortably holds the 4½volt flat torch battery. The reflector is removable and is held in place on the front of the battery casing by a bayonet fitting. The guns are designed to accept only flashbulbs with an ASCC cap, and no bulb ejector is fitted.

The camera bracket is a light-alloy strip which has turned over edges as stiffening, and three camera-fixing screw positions are provided, the farthest from the battery casing giving a separation of 3¾in. A 9in. connecting lead is fitted, and this is supplied with either a 3mm co-axial connector or a B.S.S. 2pin socket. In the case of the Minor gun sent for review, the lead is not secured to the battery casing except at the point at which it makes contact by being clamped under a brass strip. In view of the light gauge of the conductor it would seem preferable to have a more secure clamp for the connecting cable, since as it stands a very light pull is liable to pull the connecting lead away from its anchorage.

An open-flash button is provided on the top of the battery casing, and the Minor may be converted into the Major gun by the addition of a capacitor unit which costs 11s. 3d. The price of the Minor gun is 15s. 0d. plus 4s. 11d. purchase tax. and the Major costs £1 1s. 0d. plus 6s. 10d. purchase tax.

The Envoy 'Zing' flashgun advert specifies "A battery is not supplied, and flash leads are extra."

There are also two flashguns for 'Open Flash' photography, where the shutter is opened on B(ulb), the flash is fired and then the shutter is closed. This facilitated flash photography for those with a camera that didn't have a flash synchronised shutter.

Ilford also distributed three electronic flashguns, manufactured by Clive Courtenay & Co. Ltd; of Horsham Road, Dorking, Surry. They are the 'Cub' at £15.15s.6d, batteries extra (£15.78p), the 'Litepak' at £21.6s.4d without batteries (£21.32p) and the 'Courier' Mark II, priced from £30.9s (£30.45p) to £41.19s.9d (£41.99p).

By the second half of the 1950s it seems even British flashgun manufacturers conceded that the German DIN 3mm coaxial PC lead was standard and units with other connectors disappeared.

An Ilford Junior flash gun, box and instruction leaflet (picture by David Muggleton).
It is an 'open' flashgun, meaning it doesn't have an electrical lead enabling it to be plugged into automatic flash synchronisation contacts on a camera shutter. In use, the camera shutter would be opened using the Bulb or Time setting, the flash fired and the shutter closed again. The camera would have been on a tripod or resting on a rigid surface. The subject would have needed to keep still, though in a dimly lit room the film would have been mainly exposed only by the short duration of the flash, so minor movement would have been 'frozen'.

It comprises a black plastic battery case, a white reflector and a diffusing cover (missing) and cost 6s/6d (33p). The battery would have been pressed through a hole in the base. When the terminals on the battery and bulb touched together, the bulb fired. It used bulbs having ASCC bayonet caps and required a GEC BA 6115 Photoflash Cell battery, price 9d (4p). The original instructions, dating from late 1956 (date code M56) can be read as a pdf file here.

By the late 1950s, even low cost cameras were manufactured with facility for automatic flash synchronisation, so that the 'open flash' technique (see above) was no longer required. The Prontor-Compur (PC) DIN flash plug and shutter socket connection had become standard. All the folllowing Ilford flashguns have a PC connector, though the flashgun for the Sportina (see below) also permits synchronisation via the camera's 'hot-shoe', which was the next stage of simplifying synchronsation by building the electrical contacts directly into the accessory shoe (by 1963)- thus avoiding the need for a connecting lead. The Ilfoflash, principally designed for the Ilfomatic camera range, only has the 'hot shoe' contact.


Ilford brought out two flashguns contemporary with their Sportsman & Sporti camera range. The Sportslite instructions suggest March 1959 (coincident with the Style 2 Sportsman) - my thanks to Peter Williams for this date information. Both flashguns are included in Amateur Photographer's 'Lighting & Flash Guide' October 1960, which suggest they were contemporary; the advert (left) is dated 5th October 1960.

Simon Cooper has e-mailed to tell me his Sportilux instruction leaflet has 'A61' as a footnote, indicating it wasn't printed until January 1961. But this might simply be that the original leaflet got reprinted.

A new version of the Sportilux was announced in April 1961 (Ref: Cameras & Equipment magazine, April 14th 1961) fitted with a 3.5" reflector. By turning the reflector in a clockwise direction, both the capacitor and battery chambers become accessible for inspection. Complete with a plastic zip case, it cost £1.2s.6d (£1.13p).

Both take 'capless' bulbs, as introduced in 1955 e.g the Philips P.F.1 (8d each =3p) and the blue (for daylight balanced colour slide film) P.F.1B (9d each =4p).

The Ilford Sportilux was perhaps intended to compliment the simpler Sporti camera range. It has a non-folding reflector, but nontheless has a compact shape. With its simpler construction it was of lower cost than the Sportslite, £1.2s.6d =£1.13p including a zip-fastened case. It takes a 22.5v B122 battery. For calculating the exposure, the instructions direct the user to 'the handy exposure guide printed on the flashgun carton'.

To insert the 22.5v B122 battery the Sportilux reflector is twisted slightly anti-clockwise so that it can be removed from the central bulb holder. The battery plus & minus contacts must then be orientated to match + / - marks moulded into the plastic beneath the capacitor. The flash connector plug is a PC (Prontor Compur) which was standard by 1960.

The Sportslite has an unusual folding reflector which extends out of the central 'stem' when the surround to the bulb socket is rotated. The mechanism is constructed on similar principles to a lens iris diaphragm.

In October 1960 it cost £1.18s.10d = £1.94p in a zipped case (excluding the battery). This flashgun runs off a 22.5v B122 battery (see below). It has 'push-button bulb ejection' and is "supplied with 10 inches of cable with co-axial plug." A useful flash exposure guide is moulded into the cream plastic body.

The Sportslite was reviewed in the BJPA for 1960 (pages167-168).
SPORTSLITE FLASHGUN (Ilford Limited, Ilford, Essex)
Incorporating a very original design of fan reflector, this is a most attractive little battery/capacitor unit for capless bulbs. The case is made from cream plastic, and measures only 3½x1¾x7/8in with an integrally moulded 2½in diameter frontal extension to take the reflector. Total weight is 2½oz.

The back of the casing clips in and gives immediate access to the battery (22½volt B122 type) and capacitor (100 mfd)-both units merely being slipped between strong spring terminals permanently marked for polarity. A 9in lead with integral co-axial plug, a moulded plastic accessory foot and a push-button bulb ejector complete the casing equipment. A table showing aperture settings at various distances for PF1 and PF5 bulbs used with Ilford FP3, HP3 and Colour F films is moulded on the back of the lid.

Coming to the reflector, this is best described by comparing it with the iris diaphragm of a lens, with the action from the centre instead of from the perimeter. It is made up from eight crescent-shaped stainless steel leaves and an inner disc bearing two projections. A few degrees clockwise turn of the disc by means of the projections opens the reflector up to a 3¾in diameter cup of about ¾in depth; the reverse action closes it. It would be difficult to imagine a neater or quicker action than this, and in its closed position the reflector is well protected by the plastic disc already mentioned.
Price of the Sportslite flashgun (in 1959), complete with plastic zip pouch, is £1 3s 3d plus 6s 6d purchase tax (£1.64p).

Subsequent to the Sportslite and Sportilux, Ilford marketed two flashguns called the Ilfolite and the Ilfolux. The Ilfolite was introduced in December 1963 (the instruction leaflet has J63, meaning 10th month of 1963, printed on its last page - my thanks to David Muggleton for this information), while the Ilfolux instructions have a last page footnote A64, suggesting that the Ilfolux was introduced by the start of spring 1964 (my thanks to Peter Williams for this information). Both took a B154 (15v) battery which is smaller (see below) than the previous B122 (22.5v) and its likely that Ilford took advantage of the availability of the smaller B154 battery to redesign their Sportslite and Sportilux flashguns and make them physically more compact.

Ilfolite was of small size with a fold down 2" x 2" dimpled reflector, that gave it compact dimensions when not in use. It took both PF and AG bulbs and cost 24s/6d=£1.23p in Nov.1967; believed to increase to 35s.9d=£1.79p during the next 2years. The rear of the flashgun has an exposure calculator based upon the Guide No. principle.

The reflector hinges upwards for use. There is a moulded accesory shoe for fitting the flashgun to a camera and a standard 3mm DIN coaxial flash synchronisation lead.

The second picture shows the Ilfolite with the lower front cover removed, showing the smaller (than the B122) B154 15volt battery and the capacitor circuit which had become a standard feature of most all flashguns by this date. It ensured more certain firing of the flashbulb.


The Ilfolux was a compact capacitor circuit flashgun and included a built-in test lamp. It had a rotary exposure calculator on the rear, calibrated in ASA and DIN film speeds.

The 'iris' type reflector, which opens out by a small twist of the central disc surrounding the bulb fitting, is reminiscent of the Sportslite. It opens to 3.75" (95mm) diameter. When closed, the reflector is 2.6" (66mm) diameter.

The overall size of the folded unit is 3.5"x2.6"x1.3", fitting into a plastic 'zip up' case. It was priced at £1.17s.6d. (£1.88). My thanks to Peter Williams for information on the Ilfolux.

The Ilfolux was no longer available by Nov.1967.

The Ilfolux box and instruction leaflet. On the end flap of the box it reads 'Made in Western Germany'.

Ilfolux with its reflector closed, ready for packing away into its plastic zip-up case.

Inside the Ilfolux after the rear clip-on cover (see right) has been prised off.

The battery is a 15Volt Ever Ready type B154 (see below). The capacitor is rated at 150µF.

At the top of the enclosure, above the flashbulb socket, is a test lamp, being an ordinary torch type screw fitting bulb rated at 3.8Volt, 0.07Amp. A small white sprung press button, to the right of the bulb in the picture, closes the test circuit. A 2,000ohm resistor limits the current flow through the flash bulb during charging of the capacitor but enables the test bulb to glow visibly through the small green plastic 'dome' on top of the enclosure. When the camera shutter is fired, the full 15Volt potential is available via the capacitor to fire the flash bulb.

Right is shown the flash exposure calculator on the rear of the Ilfolux. By setting the arrow to point to the film speed e.g. 100ASA, the correct aperture can be read off for a range of distances e.g f8 at 3m. The same Guide No. (approx. 24 in metres with 100ASA film) is applied to AG1, PF1 and PFB bulbs.

Rear clip-on cover with exposure calculator.

The Ilfolux has an adapter, see extreme right, which converts the PF capless fitting (introduced in 1955, above left, also see below) to the newer AG fitting (announced in 1959, above right, also see text article below)

PF1 capless bulbs - clear colour as originally advised for monochrome & colour negative, PF1B blue (as shown here) for daylight balanced reversal colour film. Eventually, the PF1B became 'universal'.
This capless design of bulb was introduced by Philips in 1955 (though with a press announcement in October 1954 ~ see Photoguide magazine). Their size is 16.5mm diameter x 46mm long (may have been somewhat larger when first announced; Atlas Lightiong give these as the reduced dimensions of their True-flash brand in May 1961), giving 7500 lumens seconds of light. Their suggested Guide Number was 130 in feet, 40 in metres, for ISO 100 film @ 1/30sec (in practice, the G.No depends upon the size & directional effect of the reflector, plus the shutter speed & its synchronisation, X or M, so the suggested figure is likely a maximum). Although really standing for PhotoFlux, Philips referred to 'PF' in their adverts as also meaning 'Perfection in Flash'.

AG1 miniature capless flashbulbs, enabling even more compact flashguns.

"Cameras & Equipment" magazine carried a page long article in their January 6th 1961 edition, entitled "America's Wonder Bulb - The AG1". It read:

After years of tantalising announcements by the manufacturers, American photographers are now rapidly changing over to the new 'jelly bean' flashbulb, the AGl. Almost half the size of the smallest bulbs used in this country-the capless No. 1 and PF1-the AGl gives practically the same effective light output.
The AGl is the first capless bulb to be produced in America. However for the time being it will not completely replace the pinless base M2 bulb which has been the "standard" for several years and which gives a practically identical light output. The reason for this is that the AGl requires a much smaller reflector than either the M2 or our own PF1 and No.1 and in order to utilise the light output effectively, a 2" or 3" polished reflector is recommended. Use the standard 4" or 5" reflector recommended for PF1, No.1, or M2 bulbs and effective light output drops by about a stop. Therefore most AGl converters available in the States include, not just a base adaptor, but also a new reflector.
Compact and Baseless
Several reasons contributed to the decision by manufacturers to introduce the AGl in competition with the well established M2 bulbs. Compact size was only one of the reasons. Just as important was the fact that the bulb is baseless. Baseless bulbs are cheaper to produce since the cost of the metal base, and the extra step needed to attach it to the bulb, is eliminated.
Because the bulbs are so small, design engineers realised that it would be possible to make magazine loading, repeater flashguns. Here they had a real sales gimmick, for the ability to run through a magazine of flashbulbs at the rate of a shot a second could not be equalled by most electronic flashunits. And of course, with the small bulb size, a flashgun and bulbs takes up less space than the smallest electronic flashes on the market.
Flashgun manufacturers co-operated in designing single shot flashguns that were smaller, more compact and efficient than had ever been known before. Many types of repeater flashguns were also produced, most no larger than the one-shot units designed for M2 bulbs.
For many years the AGl was just something photographers had been hearing about-but never seen. Introduction of the bulbs on the market had been delayed by manufacturing problems caused by squeezing so much power into such a small space. The bulbs use zirconium wire, as do our own PFl's, but the small size necessitates using very high oxygen pressure inside the bulb-about double the pressure that had formerly been considered "standard."
As a result, early production bulbs were exploding during use at a rate considered intolerable. They were taken off the market as production technicians sought for ways to beat the problem. They succeeded and now the AGl's are pouring out of the factories and are becoming an increasing proportion of the 750,000,000 flashbulbs sold in America every year.
AGl's are being imported in this country in limited quantities and sell for 1s each. Since this is 4d more than PF1 or No.1, it is unlikely that the imported bulbs will achieve much popularity, except among photographers requiring the "rapid fire" feature.
But at the same time there are very strong rumours that several of the largest electrical firms in this country are gearing up to manufacture AGl bulbs -and that in about a year British made bulbs will be on sale at about 6d.

By January 27th 1961, Cameras & Equipment announced:
"More News of the AG1"
AG-1 flashbulbs are to be imported into the UK under the name Mazdaflash and distributed by Photo-Science Ltd; 165, Wandsworth Bridge Road, Fulham, London, S.W.6.
The bulbs will retail at 10s (50p) per dozen, with the blue bulbs (AG-1/B) at 11s (55p) per dozen.

The AG1 design of bulb is believed to have been first announced in 1959, though the article above suggests they were not readily available in the UK until early 1961. Their size is some 12mm diameter x 34mm long. The AG1B (blue) produced 5500 lumen seconds of light; Guide Number of 110 in feet, 33 in metres, for ISO 100 film @ 1/30sec. This was largely superceded by the AG3B (as the pack illustrated) which gave out 7500 lumens seconds, the same as a blue PF1B and the same as the original clear AG1.

The batteries used in these flashguns; B122 of 22.5volt and B154 of 15volt.
The B122 is still available as an Energizer 412 from The Small Battery Company or from Vintage Cameras Ltd.
The B154 is still available as an alkaline equivalent, type A220.

When Ilford introduced the Sportina Rapid camera range in 1965 they introduced a complimentary styled flashgun especially for this camera.

By the time of the October 1969 AP 'Lighting & Flash Guide', none of the above flashguns are listed. Ilford are only promoting the miniature Ilfoflash to compliment their Ilfomatic cameras, or those Ilfomatics without in-built flash facility, namely the Ilfomatic Compact and Universal 50. It was made in Macau (a Portugese colony at the time of the Ilfoflash manufacture, west of Hong Kong, but returned to Chinese rule in Dec 1999).

The Ilfoflash is barely 60mm tall, including its attachment 'shoe' which has a centre electrical contact (hot shoe). The Ilfoflash width is some 40mm and its depth some 25mm. It takes AG type miniature flashbulbs.

The battery is a 15v Ever Ready B154 or similar and fires bulbs via a capacitor circuit. The battery is accessible by prising off the front reflector.

It cost 17s.9d (89p) in 1969 (or 13s.9d=69p in Nov.1967). The box in the photographs (left) is marked 16s.4d (81.5p).

On the rear of the gun is a simple flash exposure calculator for AG1B bulbs. The black disc above the calculator table is the bulb eject button.


Flash Equipment from Johnsons of Hendon Ltd

Johnsons, both under their own brand and as distributors, sold many flash outfits throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

During the early 1950s these were a mixture of 'Open Flash' systems for firing flash bulbs by people possessing only simple, non flash synchronised, cameras, together with more sophisticated, and ever more compact, capacitor flash bulb firing outfits for use with synchronised shutters.

The advertisement alongside, maybe 1952, shows what was possibly the earliest of the Johnson capacitor flash guns. Like the 'Open Flash' systems above, this early capacitor unit seems to have been based upon a conventional flashlight torch body.

This design seems to have been refined during the next 12months into the Johnson Capacitor Flashgun Model 0, becoming much more the compact shape that became the standard 'look' for all such designs (see below). Peter Davies has been good enough to provide me with a pdf of the instructions for this early, compact format, bulb flashgun, named, in December 1953, the Model 0. Click here, on on the image, to down load these.

By the mid-1950s the first electronic flash systems appeared alongside the bulb flash units. Over the next decade, bulb flash was largely superceded by electronic flash, as electronic flash units became cheaper, smaller and lighter.

Johnsons of Hendon claimed (1965) that the world's first camera with a built-in electronic flashgun was Voigtländer's Vitrona. I believe the camera first appeared in 1964. Similar to the contemporary Vito C, the addition of the electronic flashgun more than doubled the Vito C's price of £20.18s (£20.90p) with f2.8 Lanthar lens.

The electronic flash tube and reflector were housed in the top of the camera and the 'flash ready' light was visible in the viewfinder as well as on top of the camera. The 'quickly detachable' pistol grip housed the batteries and capacitor. The Guide Number was 60 with 50ASA colour film. The user had only to set the camera-subject distance and the correct aperture was set automatically. The lens was a Lanthar f2.8 50mm in a Prontor 250 shutter.

Price in 1965, including batteries, was £57.5s.1d (£57.25p), ever ready case another £5.5s.3d (£5.26p).

This page last modified: 17th October 2014