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Thursday, 10 December 2020


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A couple stories of early flash adventures. These were told to me by Chuck Scott of Chicago newspaper fame. I don't know how true they are, but I've always held to the rule, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

1. In days of old when newspaper photographers were using Speed Graphics a method to light an outdoor photo, like a car accident, was to use a flare gun. Shoot the flare up in the air and take the photo while it was drifting down under a parachute. Effective, but not popular with the police, especially when there was leaking gas.

2. One of the early electronic flash guns was built at one of the newspapers where Chuck was a photographer. It had a huge, very heavy battery pack using a car battery of something similar. There was a long cord from the pack to the flash head. A photographer took it out to shoot a night football game. It was raining and the cord was so long that it was dragging on the wet ground and getting into puddles. The guy didn't think that was a good idea. So, he wrapped the cord around his arm to keep it off the ground. When he took a photo, standing in a puddle, it induced a current into his arm. He was carried away by an ambulance, but lived to shoot another day.

When I started full time in the early-mid 70's, after college, I worked for a guy that did a lot of industrial photography on 4X5. We used to use large flashbulbs, the size of a regular light-bulb (B2 maybe?) dyed blue, and string them up in the type of Speed Graphic flash sticks that people modify now to make light-sabers. You could take regular lamp cord with a nonpolarized lamp plug, and "jump" hook them together. When you fired one, they would all go! A lot of horsepower!

The reason you did it was that they were far more powerful than most strobes, even studio strobes, unless you were going to cart a Ascor oil condenser system in, which could take all day! We used to buy the bulbs by the case, and I was warned to wear a leather glove to mount the bulbs, as static could set them off while you were trying to pop them in! It happened to my boss, and the same coating that kept the bulbs from exploding, glued the hot bulb to his hand! Needless to say, excruciating pain, and he had to go to the hospital, and had a long recovery time!

One went off in my hand once, while wearing light leather driving gloves, thank-God, but it literally shrunk the glove by blasting all the humidity out of it! It was like brittle paper!

I mention this because at the time (mid-70's) you could still source flash powder! We even had some tins laying around, you had to be very careful with. This was for situations that you needed even more light than the bulbs gave! We never used it when I was there, but he had used it a short time before I started working with him!

It's amazing how much technology existed from the olden days, and still being used, well into the 70's, that people think was last used in 1910!

In college in the 1920's my father-in-law had an interest in photography. He decided to see if flash powder could be used as the light source in an enlarger. No real damage done, as he related, but it was a one-experiment thesis!

That's it.. I'm going to set up my Lionel trains around my brand new Epson P900 that I just received two days ago.

Before I read a single word, I looked at the portrait and thought it was Cliff Clavin. Then I read the narrative and found out that I'm not the only one.

Mark Osterman, at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, knows how to use flash powder. Athough I don't think he does more than demonstrate the technique.

Speaking of trains and flashbulbs if you aren't familiar with the work of O. Winston Link you owe it to yourself to find a copy of his book "Steam, Steel, and Stars". He was a master of the flash tempered with patience. Here are links to the book cover and a shot of one of his set-ups.



One Portland, Oregon photographer (whose name I have forgotten) remembered an assignment to record a local charity dinner during the holidays. He climbed a tall ladder to near the ceiling, poured extra flash powder on the pan ("it was a big room") and held the pan over his head while tripping it. The explosion brought down the plaster rosette from the ceiling. "I got out of there before the dust cleared".

I remember in 1937, when I was 9, the family rented a two story 1890's farmhouse with a formal "parlor," which contained a grand piano. My brother and I were taking violin lessons, so we had to get all dressed up in coat and tie and pose with our violins, next to the grand piano. My folks hired a photographer to come out and take several portraits. The photographer set up a quite tall tripod, that had a ~12" x 12" metal platform on which he poured about 1/3 cup of some powder. I didn't see him lighting it, but I did see it go off with a blast of light. I guess flash bulbs appeared soon after

Lionel also made the Linex Stereo camera around 1954. I have one in its original gift box somewhere in storage. It used a proprietary cassette film format that makes it pretty much useless. I bought it because it looked so cute sitting next to my 5x7 inch Stereo Graflex. The scarcity of Graflex, not Graflok, 5x7 film holders is pretty daunting as well.

Some years ago, the blocks around Madison Square Park in Manhattan (yes, where the original Madison Square Garden was built) was the "toy district." Toy manufacturers had their headquarters in the area.

Lionel trains had a showroom at 27th Street and Madison Avenue, on the north side of the park. It was open to the public. I guess it must have been in the early 1960s when my friends' father took us to see the trains. Huge layouts on an entire floor in the building (the building is still there but has been repurposed). It was incredible. I remember particularly the submarine car -- a car with a removable toy submarine mounted on it -- the sub was battery operated and submersible. Photos can be googled.

Of course we all had a set of Lionel trains back then.

By the way, the toy district was less than 10 blocks south from what used to be the camera district in Manhattan.

I remember reading that magnesium powder when burned gave a cloud of fine particles of magnesium oxide.
This cloude the indoor space so much that series photos were not possible.
As you say, the good old days.

Still affected by that invention. Need to tape to avoid the delay in that kind of light bulb in my Yaschica 124.

Some more history here : https://petapixel.com/2015/10/05/a-brief-history-of-the-camera-flash-from-explosive-powder-to-led-lights/

I had an American Flyer instead of Lionel. With that, I should have entered politics. I never had to touch the third rail.

Wow. Lionel trains! My brother and I had a table full of them down in the basement. We'd never force them to run in circles around a silly tree. And we're not 80 yet. I still bump into HO railroads of interesting complexity in all sorts of places, for example, the Maine Central RR in Jonesport: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTqv8iBox6U

And the connection to Roy Cohn, while creepy, will be hard to forget.

I always think of Harold Edgerton when flash photography is mentioned. But it took quite a few years from his first zenon flash tube to the little battery run box sitting on a cameras accessory shoe.
Ah, the Honeywell potato masher, the professional choice for mobile, on camera flash when I first started out.

The Lionel Corporation based in NY contributed extensively to the war effort (WW2). They produced morse keys for training conscripts and for use in the field. The J-38 was designed to be used with a Signal Corps radio/telegraph operator training set.There were several variations of the key and Lionel licensed several other manufacturers to produce millions of these keys. They have become prized collector items in the amateur radio community. The most sought after variation was marked 'Lionel Corporation N.Y. on the bakelite base. There are often orange colored numbers and letters stamped on the bottom of J-38's, sometimes inside circles or squares. These stamps were used to indicate that the key had been approved by a Signal Corps inspector. The letters MFP are also sometimes found on J-38's indicating that the key had been treated for mildew and fungus prevention. I have one of the rare ones but I don't know how to upload the photo along with this text.

RE: Flash powder
I knew a senior photographer whose studio was a fixture in my home town. He told me about using flash powder to light a formal dinner being held in a large hall. He set up the powder in four corners of the room. I don't know how he fired all of them at once. However, he had large fabric bags suspended over the flash trays to catch the smoke so it would not bother the diners. Photographer's job was a lot more complicated then.

I found that fascinating Mike. I was ignorant of most of that. Over here it was Hornby that dominated the model train market, first with clockwork and then electric. They are still in business, although the rolling stock is made in China now.

You're not the only one who thinks he looks like John Ratzenberger (aka Cliff Clavin). Here's a comparison pic:


Some of the most unexpected people are model railway enthusiasts. Rod Stewart, for example - here's a link to a story about his layout:


He's pretty much in your suggested demographic - 75 - although I would think that 'peak model trains' in the UK was reached in the late 50's/1960 rather than 1950, which would fit him perfectly.

(And apparently he did build it himself, apart from 'the electrics' - he got a profesional to do that aspect.)

Your post inspired me to make this photograph...

This Lionel model train engine is at least 75 years old. My father (b. 1931; d. 2018) was given this train when he was a child. I played with this train (the engine and two passenger cars) when I was a child. (I'm 65 now.)

These trains (and subsequent sets) were a Christmas tradition in our home. They came down from the attic with the holiday lights and headed back to the attic shortly after New Year's Day.

My father's trains did not work particularly well nor did I fully appreciate the Art Deco styling at the time. Thus, I was more interested in the set my younger brother and I received for Christmas in the early 60's. The freight cars in the new set (including a mobile missile launcher; it was the Cold War after all!) were more interesting so the new set got a lot more use.

When my mother moved to assisted living this Fall, I ended up with the box of my father's trains and I stored it away in our barn without really looking into the box. Your post stimulated me to retrieve the box.

The box contained the engine and two passenger cars that I remember from my youth; all in their original boxes, no less. Also in the box were a few boxes of brand new, unopened (modern) track, a modern power supply and a receipt (dated 2005) for refurbishing the trains. I don't think that my father ever set them up after having them serviced.

I am not sure what has happened to my childhood train set, but we do have a set bought in the 1980's when our own children were young in a box somewhere.

Alas, I do not have the space nor the motivation to set up these trains, so I've packed them up and put them back in the barn.


I hadn't thought too much about your comment on the Jacob Riis photo till I was watching TV this afternoon. There was a commercial (what we used to call a PSA) for the call before you dig people. It features the actor that played Cliff Clavin. Apparently he is Riis' son. The appearance is remarkable. Good work Mike. Call before you dig.

Bill Pearce

I must have been seven, or eight years old when my father, around 1945 took me to an old photographer's studio in Ystad on the Swedish south coast to show me how magnesium flash powder worked. Well, it did not work. At least not at the first try. The old man was too nervous and did not manage to light the powder. He was scared and didn't get close enough. In the end it was a great success and I was impressed enough to remember it today.

The photographer was very old indeed. Today they are all very young.

I have a small stereo camera that Lionel made called the Linex.

The train set was still popular in the 1960s when I was a kid.

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