Old Rare Camera Shutter Found in Historic Pipestone Home

This strange looking shutter was found in a wall by the new owner of local ‘pioneer’ photographer George Chesley’s former home in Pipestone, MN. As I am locally known to know something about old camera and equipment, it was given to me by the finder to research.

After cleaning off the muck of years I still couldn’t identify it or find out how it worked. It seemed to be lacking any springs, but it had ‘Lancaster’s Patent’ stamped onto it, so I did a search on the internet and found it once fitted to the front of the lens on an 1889-ish Lancaster Instantograph half-plate brass and mahogany camera.

The reason I couldn’t find any springs was because it never had any. It’s all complete, the motive power is supplied by an ordinary rubber band, or ‘India rubber band’ as Lancaster termed it. There aren’t any speed markings on the shutter. The exposure depends on the strength of the rubber band, and how far you tension it via a lever with click stops.

To quote from Lancaster’s instructions: ‘almost any exposure may be given as bands of all strengths may be used, and two or three may be used at the same time: an exposure of 150th of a second can be obtained with it, and down to almost anything.’

I fitted a rubber band, cocked the shutter and fired it. It worked first time even though it was somewhat sluggish. Mr. Lancaster was quite correct, it worked beautifully from something that looked like about ½ sec up to something quite fast. Not bad for a shutter about 115 years old that can be brought back to life with a clean and a new rubber band.

Maker: J. Lancaster & Son Birmingham England, Circa 1885

Shutter Type: Rotary, rubber-band powered and regulated.

Attributes: Focusing or T setting.

A Lancaster Patent shutter which fits a lens of approximately 1.5 inch interior diameter, screw thread. Works on a simple but effective rubber band principal, using different sizes of rubber bands to vary the shutter speeds.

Notes: Around quarter-plate size. The main part of the shutter is a cast brass baseplate with a threaded boss on the back so that it can be screwed into the front of a lens, on what would now be called the filter thread. There’s a round hole in the baseplate in the center of the boss to allow light through to make the exposure. Mounted on the front is a rotating disc with a crescent shaped cutout. As the disc rotates, the crescent shaped aperture moves in front of the hole to make the exposure. The exposure time depends on the speed at which the disc rotates. The disc is powered by a rubber band that hooks over a peg on the disc and has its other end hooked over a peg on a pivoted lever. By moving this ‘speed control’ lever outwards against click stops, the tension in the rubber band can be increased to give a faster shutter speed. A spring loaded lever engages with two notches round the edge of the disc, one to hold it closed and one to hold it in the open position for focusing. Ingenious. This shutter was sold under the names of Instantaneous and Instantograph. It proved very popular and is often found fitted to Instantograph cameras.

Early examples, before around 1890, have a segment shaped cut-out. Advertisements claim that speeds up to a 1/100 could be obtained.

The shutter was replaced in the late 1890s by the ‘See-Saw’ model.