Kodak Instamatic Cameras: Fun With Flash Cubes
By James Grahame
Vintage Kodak ad scan from AdClassix.com
Photography used to be a big deal. Each shot cost money, and shooting indoors usually required disposable flash lamps. In the early 1960s, Kodak decided to make snapshot photography accessible to the unwashed masses by offering film in cartridges rather than on fiddly spools. The result was the arrival of the Kodak Instamatic lineup in 1963. They were designed to accept 126 cartridge film, dramatically lowering the cost of manufacturing each camera, since the film back plate and frame counter was built into the plastic film cartridge.
Many Instamatic 126 cameras were manufactured in the UK, USA, Germany, Brazil and even Australia (a far cry from today's "Made in China" approach). They offered simple controls -- low-end models included a fixed focus lens with a separate viewfinder and dual-position "sun" and "cloud" exposure control and no electronic aperture metering. Instamatics were the essence of simplicity, much like Kodak's original Brownie camera.
Kodak marketed several disposable flash technologies including the Magicube, which offered four tiny mechanically triggered pyrotechnic flash bulbs in a svelte transparent plastic cube. It didn't take me long to discover that the flash could be set off by poking a little wire on the bottom of the case. Much hilarity ensued (gimme a break, I was only ten) until I realized I'd burnt through an entire package of flash cubes.
The Instamatic 126 lineup was wildly popular and remained on the market until 1988 - an astounding 25 year run. The Kodak site reports that more than 50 million of the little cameras were sold in the first seven years alone, and I suspect another 20 or 30 million were sold throughout the snapshot-crazy 1970s. Dozens of models were produced and they often pop up cheaply at garage sales -- a great low-cost collectible. Sadly, my Instamatic met an untimely end in 1979, when my little sister dropped it from a hotel balcony somewhere in Northern California.