Cordin was off and running in a small niche of the high-speed photography business, though it turned out not to be a very high-speed business; the company today sells about 10 cameras a year, often customizing for specific jobs.
The chief customizer is James Brimhall, 70, who has been with Cordin for almost 20 years and is in charge of camera assembly. The work is as much about handcrafting as engineering. Cordin’s own shop fashions practically every knob, gear and fitting for each camera. With his shop apron, hat, glasses and two hearing aids, Brimhall has an old-world, master-craftsman mien, and is now passing on his expertise and responsibilities to a 32-year-old employee named Lane Oberg. For Oberg, it’s a matter of learning by doing: One does not arrive from optical-engineering school ready to build a device as specialized as a Cordin camera.
One morning I help Oberg assemble one of 160 lens housings that will form the guts of a $385,000 rotating-mirror camera destined for a ballistics range at Los Alamos National Lab. It will be the fifth Model 140 camera the company has built in its history: 2.25 million fps, f/16 aperture, 80 frames total. Its mirror is a pentagonal lump of beryllium coated in polished aluminum; the beryllium has been X-rayed to ensure that the crystalline structure is pristine, lest it explode when rotated at 562,500 rpm by the camera’s helium-driven turbine.
Oberg greets me from his desk, where he’s holding a black, anodized-aluminum mount in one hand and an electric Dremel tool-the kind you see advertised on late-night TV in the other. Metal shavings are piled on the floor nearby. “I knew there was a reason I kept this thing around!” Oberg says cheerfully. “Never used it before, but I figured it’d come in handy.”
He then begins grinding away at parts of the mount, exposing the silvery metal on several surfaces. He explains that the hundreds of lenses that go into the camera will be held in place by these mounts, which are precisely engineered to strict tolerances. But the cement he’s using to hold the lenses in the mounts doesn’t stick well to anodized aluminum. So he’s simply grinding the anodization away.
We duck through a large, black plastic sheet that acts as a UV-light barrier and into what is an almost “clean” room. A plywood board holds hundreds of rectangular glass lenses, which look like superthick lenses for reading spectacles: about 1-1/2 inches long, 1/4 inch thick, maybe 1/4 inch high. Each assembly will hold four lenses, two assemblies per frame, for the 80-frame total. Two of the lenses in each assembly need to be placed with a tolerance in the micrometer range; two do not.