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While reading this answer (and going down memory lane) flashcubes were mentioned.

That got me thinking: Why were these disposable flashes so common? And why did it take so long for electronic flashes to take over?

Flashcube Flip flash

Wikipedia suggests the electronic flash was already compact and economically viable by the end of the 60s, but many of us still used disposable flash units in the 80s (and maybe 90s?). That took some time.

Was it for some technological limitation? Was it economically more convenient to keep selling disposables?

  • While this is definitely on-topic here, you might get valuable answers in the Electronics site, as they were most likely technology limitations in terms of capabilities and costs. – Itai Jul 21 '17 at 3:33
  • In addition to the other answers there is one other reason: in storage these require no maintenance and are 100% ready to go at any time. For casual "hey Rob, grab the camera quick" shooters, the vast bulk of the market, this 100% availability is perfect. – Patrick Hughes Jan 11 at 18:11
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Electronic flashes existed, but they were bulky and inconvenient to use compared to the disposable flash cubes.

To get a reasonable number of flashes per battery or per charge, the battery had to be big. This also meant heavy. Flash units well into the 1970s were separate accessories that you hung over your shoulder. In that era, you'd often see professional photographers, especially journalists photographing indoor events, with all kinds of kit hanging from them. The flash unit was larger and heavier than the camera.

The kind of camera you picture was intended for the same consumers as point and shoot cameras are today. These people want cheap and convenient, and can't be trusted to use complicated equipment properly even if they would.

What made the flash cubes so much smaller and lighter was that the energy for each flash was stored right in the bulb. This was a magnesium filament that made a bright light for a short time when it burned. The energy in the magnesium was much more directly used to make light than the energy in a battery, so required less mass and size for the conversion. Unlike batteries, flash cubes were always ready, and didn't slowly (or not so slowly for the rechargeable battery technology of the day) loose their effectiveness when stored.

  • Pro flashes were still bulky and heavy in the 1970s (mainly because a lot of pros were still using stuff they bought in the '50s and '60s), but some of the earliest consumer cameras to have small built in electronic flashes were 110 cameras from the mid to late 1970s. They weren't very powerful and only had a range of a few feet, but then that was the case with flashcubes and flashcards as well. – Michael C Jul 21 '17 at 19:10
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    Olin, In addition to the points you raise, disposable flash bulbs, cubes, etc. were also faster to change than the electronic units could recycle. They were also more consistent since waiting for a "ready" light often didn't ensure consistent output during a shooting session. These formed lasting habits for many hobbyists. – Stan Jul 21 '17 at 20:23
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    Interesting answer. Another related "energy" requirements. A roll of photos only had 24 or 36 frames. Having one cube flash (or two) of 4 flashes is a fraction of them. Today we shoot 400 photos on an event. We need 400 or more bursts of energy. – Rafael Jan 11 at 1:07
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First, the real money for Kodak, Agfa, Fuji, Konica etc. was the amateur market. Kodak had built its business on the “Brownie”. This profit channel was the camera itself and its film. Camera sales fueled the sale of photographic paper and the chemicals of the process. Additionally their existed a worthwhile market for automated developing and printing equipment.

Again, it was the mass market that fueled the bulk of the revenue of the these giants of the industry. The heart of the market was an inexpensive camera. Kodak and others schemed for ways to increase the number of pictures their customers were taking. It was obvious that flash photography provided the means to take pictures indoors. Adding flash capability to the amateur cameras resulted in a huge boost in sales.

The electronic flash of this era was large and bulky and expensive. The flash was triggered by a high voltage charge dumped into a glass tube filled with xenon gas. The problem was, how do you get the needed high voltage from low voltage batteries? The answer is to use a transformer. You input low voltage and the transformer outputs high voltage. But wait, the transformer only works on AC electricity and the battery outputs DC. How to make AC?

The early portable electronic flashes used “B” batteries. The term “B” comes from the radio industry. The “A” batteries were ordinary low voltage batteries. The “B” batteries were heavy duty high voltage batteries and they were big. Portable radios of that era used both. To solve the DC to AC conversion, a vibrator circuit was used. This is a switch that opened and closed rapidly. The vibrator converted the DC to pulsating DC. This rapid off on simulated AC and it worked. The pulsating DC is then transformed to a pulsating high voltage. Next this high voltage needed to be stored, a capacitor is used. This devise allows electricity to be tricked in. The capacitor takes time to fill. The system is “go”. The photographer presses the shutter button; the capacitor dumps its charge into the flash tube. Now you get the wanted blitz.

All this was too much for an inexpensive camera. All these problems were solved with the advent of the transistor and the integrated circuit. Its progress that killed the flash bulb.

  • This is all good information, but it doesn't really answer the question: Why did it take so long (well over 20 years) from the time the transistor technology was available and implemented in some cameras until widespread use of disposable flashcubes (and later cards) ceased? – Michael C Jul 21 '17 at 2:19
  • @ Michael Clark -- Economy of Scale i.e. cost vs. profit margin. – Alan Marcus Jul 21 '17 at 3:52
  • It has to be beneficial to the consumer as well, or they won't choose that option, at least not in a free market. "The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit." - Milton Friedman – Michael C Jul 21 '17 at 3:55
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Why were disposable flashes prominent for so long?

Technology moved at a much slower pace back then, especially with regard to consumer cameras. For most of the 20th century, a camera was something you bought and used for decades. Even professionals, such as some of the photojournalist 'stringers' in my hometown, were using Speed Graphic types of cameras from the 1940s and 1950s as late as the 1970s!

For most of her life my mother used two cameras:

  • A Brownie she got as a girl in the late 1940s when they were practically giving them away so people would have a need to buy film for them.
  • A 126 Instamatic very similar to the one pictured in the question that she bought in the late 1960s and used well into the 1990s when cheap, easy to use compact 35mm point and shoots flooded the market.

In the last two decades or so she has used at least a couple of those 35mm compacts (that didn't last near as long as those first two cameras did before they stopped working) and at least four compact digital cameras over the last 12 years or so (that also were replaced due to no longer working properly). She only used two cameras in the first 50 years of taking photos, then at least six cameras in the last 20 years!

The consumer market back then was much more concerned with price than with technical performance of cameras. In a way this has come full circle, as most people today are happy enough with the results they can get with even fairly mediocre phone cameras that they're no longer buying consumer grade compact cameras that give much better image quality.

In the context of cost, one of the ways to enable the lowest possible price is to not put anything on the product that the consumer doesn't absolutely need to use it. This was the case with flash. Many, many people only took pictures in daylight and didn't need a flash at all. Flashbulbs and then later flashcards were pretty cheap relative to the increased cost of putting a built-in electronic flash in a camera. To add insult to injury, built in flashes consumed batteries at a rate that cost almost as much as the disposable flash cubes or cards did! It took a LOT of use of an electronic flash to offset the additional cost of the camera with one and the batteries to run it compared to the cost of using disposable flash.

Bear in mind that flashcubes and flashcards provided the energy for the flash from the chemical reaction in the bulb, not from a battery. A mechanical striker in the camera could produce enough current to trigger the flash without the need for high current batteries. Even the many cameras that did use batteries to trigger the disposable flash used miniscule amounts of battery energy per shot compared to a battery powered electronic flash.

1

Some points on why small or even built in electronics flashes weren't already gaining much more foothold in the 1960s/1970s:

  • Films, especially color, in were significantly less sensitive back then (it seems common color films in the 1960s were around 25 to 64 iso), leading to

  • Higher guide numbers (relative to film speed. Mind that some disposable flash bulb types have BRUTALLY high guide numbers for their size!) needed, making useful electronic flash units far bulkier, since

  • To double the guide number, you need 4 times the stored and released energy, thus a sturdier and larger xenon tube and a capacitor 4 times the (physical and electrical) size, and also

  • Capacitors optimized for small photographic flash (optimizing size and weight while being suitable for the application) likely only appeared on the market together with the widespread demand, while early units would just have used capacitors which, while optimized to stand the stress of rapid discharge, were meant for industrial applications where size and weight weren't key

  • Also, to charge that capacitor from battery power (unless you REALLY went for a bulky, expensive, and heavy A/B battery scheme), you need an inverter. Early designs used mechanical inverters (choppers), which weren't small and also were an unreliable wear part. Transistors suitable for that kind of duty certainly were not inexpensive in the 1950s and likely weren't either in the 1960s. Mind that commercial switching power supplies and full size all transistor color TVs weren't economically viable until the late 1960s either (these need even more sophisticated power transistors though.. but the point is, power transistors weren't as much a given as today).

  • Also, there was not much of an ecosystem for generic, small rechargeable batteries (and their chargers), nor were there alkaline batteries at dime a dozen prices. Many 1960s and 1970s electronic flashes still used built in or custom NiCD batteries and built in/dedicated chargers. Simple disposable batteries available in these days for cheap would have been zinc-carbon type, with not enough energy density to be sensible for electronic flash.

0

The simplest cameras in the 90s (like the one your post showed) did not have hot shoes or flash contacts. Cheaper to make, but no choice offered but bulbs. Users were used to bulbs, these users likely had no other flash, and the bulbs were of course a continuing source of sales.

The last several years, there have been $10 Kodak disposable cameras, including a builtin electronic flash and film. https://www.amazon.com/Kodak-Single-Camera-Flash-Packaging/dp/B00004SU73

In some cases, these discarded disposable camera bodies were salvaged and the flash removed for other purposes, for example high school water drop photography experiments.

  • 2
    "The simplest cameras in the 90s...did not have hot shoes or flash contacts." Sure, they didn't have hotshoes or ability to use an external flash, but I think the question is, why didn't they have a built-in electronic flash? In fact, my first camera was a 110 point-and-shoot with a built-in electronic flash. I got it as a gift for Christmas 1989. – osullic Jul 19 '17 at 20:37
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    110s where the first consumer cameras that enjoyed widespread usage to have built-in electronic flashes. They started appearing in the mid 1970s. – Michael C Jul 21 '17 at 2:21

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