Steinheil Optical Institute

Steinheil Quinar 135mm f/2.8 lens in Exakta mount

Toronto. In the late 1950s I bought my first Exakta. Months later I wanted to expand the camera with added lenses. Naively, I felt 35mm and 90mm were too similar to my standard lens of 55mm so I opted for 28mm and 135mm lenses.

I chose an f/2.8 135mm Steinheil Quinar for my long lens as I had a 55mm Auto-Quinon standard lens and quite liked its quality of construction. The Quinar pre-set lens was a beauty and in later years showed to have the best resolution of my three Exakta lenses. Much later, I realized that both the standard lens and 28mm wide angle were marvels of design. The wide angle was a retrofocus design created in the days before computers. Retrofocus means that the lens  has a physically longer distance from the lens centre (usually the diaphragm)  to the film plane than its actual focal length. This distance is needed to clear the mirror of the Exakta, especially at the infinity setting. Unfortunately in the mid last century such designs had significant geometric distortion (pin cushion and barrel). In contrast, the Leica 35mm and 28mm lenses were extremely low in their degree of geometric distortion.

The Steinheil company dates back to the early days of photography. Both Fox Talbot and Daguerre sent papers to Steinheil in 1839 appraising him of the developments in photography. The Optical Institute was founded by Carl August von Steinheil (1801-1870) and his younger son Hugo Adolph Steinheil (1832-1893)  in 1855. Like all German Optical  Institutes of the day, Steinheil designed and patented optical lenses. The principal business for the institute was telescope manufacture. Its photographic lenses were sold for various other cameras including Exaktas when they appeared on the market. For a brief time Steinheil also made cameras.

Son and grandson Rudolph Steinheil (1865-1930) continued the family business taking over from his father. However, his children were all girls, thus ending that male line of Steinheils. When he died in 1930, the Optical Institute in Munich passed on to Rudolf’s five girls. The Institute became a stock company owned by the girls. The company continued until 1962 when it was sold to Elgeet in Rochester, NY, known for its line of inexpensive movie camera lenses. Elgeet only kept the company for two years when it sold it to the aircraft company Lear Siegler in Santa Monica CA. From Lear it went to British Aerospace and by 1995 the grand old company, long out of the photography business finally disappeared.



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