The History of Kamerawerk Gebr.Wirgin and Edixa Reflex
seen from my point of view
Windowshopping in Stuttgart during the summer of 1957, I saw an Edixa
Reflex camera for the first time. My attention was drawn to the unusual
design of the bipartite cover over the waist-level finder. Having been
a tools engineer trainee at VEB Zeiss Ikon in Dresden and having spent
another year at Kamera-Werkstätten in Niedersedlitz, I considered
the ideal camera was the Exakta Varex which was world renowned. I wondered
if, in the free and much more developed part of Germany, there could be
found a corresponding SLR-camera with changeable lenses and viewfinders.
The Leica and the Contax were still the most exclusive cameras in Western
Germany. Obviously, there was also the attractive and reliable Contaflex
with its wonderful clear viewfinder, but the Contaflex was not quite a
real system camera. The Edixa Reflex represented the only camera in its
class in Western Germany for which I saw a future. No wonder that the efficient,
forward-looking Japanese eventually won the race.
It was very interesting and constructive seeing the production methods at Gebr.Wirgin compared with the ones at Zeiss Ikon AG. At Zeiss Ikon all the camera parts were produced with the finest precision and finish, and only small adjustments were needed during assembly. At Gebr. Wirgin on the other hand the finish was much rougher, and technicians filed and polished until everything functioned satisfactorily. I was quite shocked to see how the screw heads were secured. The metal surrounding the screw head was simply struck with a conical punch to extrude the metal into contact with the screw head to lock the screw against turning. One can imagine the damage and the trouble it created for repairs. The colleagues told me that once a technician wanted to simplify the process by leaving the cameras in the transport-boxes in which they were carried along the assembly line, while the screws were hit by the tool. To the general amusement of everyone the bottom of the transport-box fell out.
A constantly returning problem, which was never really resolved,
was the uneven exposure at the short shutter speeds from 1/250 to 1/1000
second. Several times I heard excuses that the Exakta Varex was not perfect
either on that point.
The saying goes that Henry Wirgin once was asked why they did not try
to provide more precise shutter speeds. ”People buy the cameras anyhow”
he is supposed to have answered.
Who was Henry Wirgin really, or the Wirgin brothers for that matter? The four brothers Wolf, Joseph, Heinrich and Max Wirgin originated from Radom, Poland. They looked for a higher education in Germany and Switzerland. In the twenties they started a camera factory in Wiesbaden. They produced folding cameras called Philos, Presto, Westex, Alwe and Gewir. (The name ”Gewir” is almost certainly derived from GEbr. WIRgin.) Depending on the price range they were equipped with Compur or Prontor shutters and with Steinheil or Schneider lenses, or with lenses called Gewironar.
A twin-lens Wirgin camera existed, similar to the Voigtländer Brillant. They experimented with the newly discovered material bakelite, making a camera called the Baky. A little metal camera for 127-film was called Gewirette, while the 35mm format was addressed by the compact little Edinex camera. The Edinex is also known as ”Adox Adrette”. This has its own dramatic story.
Being Jewish, the Wirgin brothers in Nazi Germany were exposed to increasing
threats, disputes and hounding. They left Germany about 1938. In the middle
of the night Heinrich was helped over the Swiss border by his faithful
gateman, driver and general drudge Seppl Haas. Heinrich continued on to
the USA and became ”Henry” Wirgin. The company was confiscated and after
some haggling with authorities was bought by Dr. C. Schleussner, Frankfurt,
who really specialised in films, photopaper and chemicals. Now Dr. Schleussner
also became a camera producer under the name Adox. It cannot have taken
long before production at the factory in Wiesbaden was changed to war purposes,
as happened to all the German industries. Wiesbaden was badly bombed and
the factory in Dotzheimer Strasse was partly destroyed.
As there was a demand for a stereo camera, Wirgin said ”aus eins mach zwei” (from one make two) and shunted two small Edixas together in order to make the Edixa Stereo, which was produced in three variations: with a simple viewfinder, with a rangefinder and, in the most expensive model, with both a rangefinder and a lightmeter.
Henry Wirgin was extremely lucky that in 1950 the young and inventive precision engineer Heinz Waaske knocked on his door. Heinz Waaske was a trainee with Telefunken before the war, was later called up for military service and returned, having been seriously wounded on the Eastern front. Heinz Waaske was looking for new pastures and ended up with Wirgin in Wiesbaden. The story is told that he one day declared ”Now I want to design an SLR camera”. Henry Wirgin bought the idea, being aware that Western Germany lacked a competitor for the East German Exakta and Praktica. The new camera was known at first as the Komet. In a way it was similar to its role models, as the shutter release button was on the front of the camera as in the Praktica, the screw mount of the lens was also 42 mm, and the shutter speed knob turned around during the exposure as in the Exakta and Praktica. These resemblances did not occur by chance either, as several of the technicians who worked on the new design came from Ihagee in Dresden. One of these technicians was Otto Helfricht, who was with the team which in the thirties, together with Carl Nüchterlein, had developed the famous Kine Exakta.
Wirgin´s new SLR camera was not allowed to be called Komet for
very long. Fichtel & Sachs protested as their company already had a
product of that name. What would be better than calling it Edixa Reflex,
and so this is the name by which it became known.
In 1960 the body of the camera was modernised by giving the exposure counter scale, the shutter speed knob and the rewind knob a black finish. About the same time ”mat” was included in the name, which referred to the instant-return mirror which caused the viewfinder to become clear again after the exposure.
From about 1958 Heinz Waaske concentrated on a project which was to become a sensation at Photokina 1960, the Edixa Electronica. The camera was remarkable with its streamlined design and its motorised automatic exposure control, which with a pressure on the so-called ”Reglertaste” (regulator-key) turned the aperture ring to the correct value. If correct exposure could not be achieved by changing the aperture alone, the system continued by turning the ring for the shutter speed until the correct exposure was achieved. Even though the Edixa Electronica was equipped with a Synchro Compur leaf-shutter, the lenses were changeable from 28mm to 135mm.
Unfortunately the Edixa Electronica suffered a sad ending. Max Wirgin,
who in the USA represented both Edixa Reflex and other brands, during the
Photokina rushed up to Henry Wirgin and cried out: ”Get rid of that rubbish.
It spoils everything!” What had happened was Max Wirgin and the other producers
had noticed that the Edixa Electronica superceded all of their existing
SLRs in design and technique. They now threatened Max Wirgin with fire
and brimstone if he insisted on selling the camera. Max persuaded Henry
to withhold the Edixa Electronica. By the time it was released on the market
in 1962 all was lost. The Japanese had scored a bull´s eye and released
fully automatic cameras already. I recall having handled an Edixa Electronica
then. I do not think that even a single camera was sold in Denmark. The
production was stopped in 1965 after approximately 4000 cameras had reached
The most exciting project on Heinz Waaske´s drawing board was a miniature 35mm format camera. It was to become a resounding success, but not under the Wirgin name. Heinz Waaske had already tried to persuade his boss to produce this camera, and he had even made a model. But Henry Wirgin did not take the bit in his teeth. Perhaps the fiasco with the Edixa Electronica was too recent in his memory. Leitz in Wetzlar was presented with the idea, but refused politely. Heinz Waaske had more luck with Franke & Heidecke in Braunschweig. Rolleiflex sales, which had been outstanding, were by this time on a downward trend and the company apparently lacked a replacement. Henry Waaske´s invention must have seemed like a gift from heaven. Today everyone knows how popular the little Rollei 35 became.
In 1965 Heinz Waaske resigned from Wirgin and moved to Braunschweig.
He stayed with Franke & Heidecke till 1978, after which he started
up his own design workshop. He resolved problems for Minox and others.
1995 the gifted camera-designer died at 71 years of age.
In 1968 Henry Wirgin threw in the towel. The successor of Kamerawerk Gebr.Wirgin was Edixa GmbH, formed with Otto Helfricht as the factory manager and Mr.Pyrlik, who once welcomed me, as a member of the board. They experimented with a completely new Edixa Electronica TL in a modern black design. The development swallowed fortunes, since both the shutter and electronics gave problems, thus in the end the camera turned out to be a white elephant.
In 1972 everything was finished. Edixa GmbH had to close down and to
turn the key in the door for the last time.
Thanks to Laila Trevor and Robert Stoddard for their kind assistance