The Steinheil Story

For over a century the Steinheil name was synonymous with elite German optical engineering but it’s probably unfamiliar those whose interest in photography extends no further than recent decades.


Steinheil’s American advertising of the 1950s and 1960s claimed ‘a century and a quarter’ of experience for the company – and it’s true that in 1826 the Münich-based physicist and astronomer Carl August von Steinheil established a small workshop in his home for repairs, but it wasn’t until 1854/5 that he founded the Steinheil Optical Institute for the purpose of manufacturing refractors and astronomical telescopes. In 1866, in collaboration with Ludwig von Seidel, the company pioneered the aplanat lens and was immediately embroiled in a dispute over patent primacy with John Henry Dallmeyer of London. Aplanats dominated the world of photography for many decades. Carl bequeathed the business to his son Hugo after his death in 1870, when it was renamed C. A. Steinheil Söhne. Fittingly, Carl’s other son Rudolph took control of the company in 1893 and by 1930 the brand was known as Steinheil or Stenheil München rather than C. A. Steinheil Töchter which might have better fitted the new owners: Rudolph’s five daughters and son-in-law, L. Franz.

During World War II, Steinheil employed 800 workers – a significant reduction from the 2,000 the factory was said to have employed pre-war. In the immediate post-war period, there was great co-operation between the major Münich makers (particularly Zeiss, Rodenstock and Steinheil) that birthed not only a new generation of Gauss lenses but also rival manufacturers, such as the one established in Münich in 1948 by Dr. A. Schacht: a former employee of Steinheil. That year, Steinheil launched a ground-breaking interchangeable lens camera called Casca (C.A.Steinheil CAmera) with a range of excellent bayonet-mount lenses. Some of these retained their names when they were reformulated as enlarger lenses.

Most of the Steinheil enlarger and process lenses on the market today date from 1948 to 1964. The name identifies their optical construction: in ascending order of quality, then, we find:

CASSAR – Available in pre-war (in enlarger lenses from at least 1935; from 1925 in taking lenses) and post-war optics: all classic triplets. Cine-Cassar movie camera lenses were also available in f2.9 and f2.5.

CASSARIT – Recomputed, improved triplets designed for colour reproduction, made from the 1955 onward. V-Cassarit (V for Vergrößerung) are the enlarging versions. In addition to conventional taking lenses there was a 50mm f3.5 Makro-Cassarit bellows lens.

CULMINAR – Fine 4-element lenses – all Tessars, with the exception of the reverse-Tessar 85/2.8. The VL designation signifies multicoating of post-war lenses. Indicating the regard in these were held in the 1960s, in one 1962 catalogue, the Primos Professional range of enlargers deployed Schneider Componar lenses as standard ($169.50), with the equivalent Componon a $20 optional upgrade. However, the top-of-the-line model ($359) was exclusively fitted with Culminars, with the 60mm lens a $40 extra.

CULMINON – Fast Planar taking lenses.

V-QUINON – Premium 6-element Gauss lenses. Steinheil’s Quinar, Quinon and Quinaron branding designates their high-end designs. The original (c.1926) Quinar was a five-element triplet cine lens unrelated to the mid-century lenses with such a strong reputation. There is also a 75/1.9 Oscillo-S-Quinon. As the Cassarits, V- designates enlarging variants.

Serial Number Index:

1930: 50000
1931: 100000
1935: 300000
1939: 480000
1940: 500000
1950: 650000
1955: 1000000
1957: 2000000
1963: 2260000
1967: 2400000
1989: 2408328

Between 1930 and 1960, Steinheil was involved in the manufacture of lenses branded Agfa, Braun Nürnberg, Heliostar, and others. In the early 1960s, Steinheil lenses were distributed in America by Ponder & Best. However, in 1962 the New York-based manufacturer then known as Elgeet (now Navitar) purchased a controlling 80% interest in Steinheil München, who in turn sold it to the aviation conglomerate Lear Siegler in 1964 – at which point the company’s business was largely diverted into aerospace and military applications rather than the production of commercial lenses, which dwindled into the tail end of the 1960s. By 1987 the company had been acquired by British Aerospace, who rebranded the optical division Steinheil Optronic in 1988. For fifteen years the company traded off-radar from its origins in the photographic trade, and when that company was broken up in 1995, its expertise – which by then consisted of tank sights, pumps, actuators and gyroscopes – was diffused into a variety of companies.

Although you can still find traces of Steinheil DNA in Jenoptik’s industrial optics portfolio (who purchased the last vestige of Steinheil Optronic), the Steinheil brand vanished in 1994 when the trademark lapsed.

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