The Phantom represents the logical extension of development for the Compass camera which was launched in March 1937. Both were designed by the notorious Noel Pemberton Billing and the Phantom was one of his last engineering projects before his death in 1948. Although this is not the place for a full biography of Billing as the designer of the Compass his name is well known but few biographical details have been published in various histories of the camera or in the photographic press. He was a product of his time, a true English eccentric, with a flair for self publicity, right wing patriotic politics that resulted in several court appearances, and an extensive knowledge of engineering that, he claimed, resulted in over 2000 patents.
Noel Pemberton Billing
Born on 31 January 1881 in Hampstead, London, Billing attended a series of minor public schools in Britain and France before taking a job in the City. He left after a difference of opinion with a colleague and took a boat to Durban, South Africa, where he took several odd jobs and took part in the Anglo-Boer war. This experience developed a life long interest in munitions and he designed a gun carriage and other items of military equipment. After a short period on the stage in Britain he returned to South Africa and settled in Johannesburg publishing the British South Africa Auto-Car journal - a courageous move as no cars were then in South Africa.
He returned to Britain where he managed the Richmond Theatre and wrote the first of several plays including Memory. He settled in a flat at the Adelphi in London.
During the early part of the twentieth century he resumed inventing, including the Digit typewriter, started the Hampstead Social Review, made furniture, farmed and built dairies. In 1904 he and his wife moved to East Grinstead where Billing developed a serious interest in aeronautics. He built, and crashed, a glider and then built an aerodrome at South Fambridge where he constructed a light monoplane which attracted the interest of Howard Wright. The business failed to develop and after moving into property development and gambling in Monte Carlo, he was gradually drawn to politics. He was elected Member of Parliament for East Hertfordshire in 1916.
He trained as a barrister and outlined his radical political ideas in a pamphlet An Empire in Embryo and he began a successful ship-running business. By 1912 he acquired his flying licence within twenty-four hours (winning a £500 bet along the way) and in 1914 his first flying boat, the Supermarine PB1, was displayed at the Olympia Aero Show. He developed the PB9, a single-seater fighting aeroplane regarded as the ancestor of the Spitfire.
In June 1917 Billing founded the Vigilante Society to promote purity in public life which became a front for its founders' extreme right wing views and prejudices. Billing's involvement culminated in the sensational libel case of 1918 prosecuted by the actress Maud Allan over her role in Oscar Wilde's Salomé. The case hinged round Billing's claim that the German secret service had a Black Book containing the names of 47,000 members of the British establishment who were sexual deviants and that the country was in a state of decadence. Billing won the case.
He resigned as an MP in 1921 and was never re-elected despite standing on several occasions. He returned to sailing his yacht and wrote a play High Treason in 1927. The play was filmed by Gaumont in 1929 as a big budget science fiction adaption set in 1950. In the 1930s he went to America where he established a casino in Mexico with Jack Dempsey. Returning to the UK he took over the Royal Court Theatre and managed it as a cinema. He continued inventing and returned to commentating on aeronautical matters. His major contribution was when the Supermarine factory went on to develop and manufacture the Spitfire.
He died on 11 November 1948 in Burnham-on-Crouch where he had been a keen sailor leaving a second wife and two children and an estate of nearly £14,000.
The Compass camera
Politics and eccentricities aside Billing was undoubtedly an accomplished and innovative engineer and designer. A list of his patents is exhaustive covering a bewildering range of objects: a machine for making and packing 'self lighting' cigarettes; a wind-up gramophone; the World Record which enjoyed commercial success in Australia; a motion picture apparatus synchronised with a gramophone; a golf practising device; a petrol automatic gun; a cloth measuring device; a pencil which calculated 'as you write', a two-sided stove; a Durotofin, a type of helicopter; and a miniature camera -- the Compass.
The Compass camera was the outcome of a bet to design a first class camera small enough to go into a cigarette packet. It was designed in a fortnight and was then improved over a period of six years. British patents for the camera were granted in 1935 and 1936 and the construction of the more than 290-part camera was put into the hands of the renowned Swiss watch maker Le Coultre et Cie. The camera was not marketed until full scale production could be started and it was officially launched in March 1937 at a cost of £30. The lens was produced by Kern of Aarau. Research undertaken by Dave Todd suggests that fewer than 3700 cameras were made before the camera stopped being advertised in 1941, although production certainly ceased sometime before this. The Compass I was made for a short period, perhaps no more than 140 examples, before it was recalled and upgraded, free of charge, into the Compass II. The camera was sold in London, Switzerland and New York and appeared with a variety of non-English engravings.
The Compass II was intended to be a complete system of photography with every feature possible being built into the camera and additional accessories such as a tripod and rollfilm back were made available as extras. Compass Cameras Ltd offered a comprehensive developing and printing service.
The Phantom camera
The Phantom Photographic Unit was one of the last engineering projects Billing worked on before his death. It has clear antecedents in the Compass camera which was taken to its logical conclusion with all aspects of the camera being built in to a single box. The Phantom camera, although larger than the Compass is of a very similar design and layout.
The Phantom, for which there appears to be no published report in any contemporary photographic periodical, was designed between 1944 and 1946 and was made by W. Rollason & Sons of Finchley, London, It was intended to be manufactured and sold complete for £25 in 1948. The prototype was never fully completed and is not fully working.
The Phantom Photographic Unit was designed as a combined carrying case, camera, developing set, storage for film and paper, contact printer, enlarger/projector and came complete with a battery storage compartment. The rationale behind the camera was that a photographer could travel with a completely self-contained outfit with which he could expose the negative/transparency, process the film, produce contact prints or transparencies, and project the transparencies. The case acted as a light-tight changing box.
This prototype was made by hand by Rollason, an optical and precision engineering firm and it was intended that die-castings for the production model would be manufactured by the Zenith Carburettor Co Ltd. The camera features a simple TTH f/3.5 50mm lens and took five images approximately 24 x 18mm on circular sheet film. The coupled-rangefinder appears similar to that of the Compass. An extinction-type light meter was built in to the camera and with only one shutter speed of 0 second the aperture was read off and the stop set. A 'time' setting allowed the camera and lens to be used as a projector/enlarger with the use of a lamp house.
The bottom part of the outer case is a battery compartment and the batteries were to be connected in a series/parallel combination depending on whether the contact printer or projector lamp houses were to be used. The aluminium case was part of the circuit.
The death of Billing and subsequent loss of financial backing ensured that the camera outfit was never completed and it never entered into commercial production.