It was a decade ago when I starting diving into digital video surveillance products and technologies. I've been into photography since I was a teenager, when I purchased my first single lens reflex (SLR). It was a Canon FTB with a f1.4 lens. It wasn't new, as they were expensive, but it was new to me. It was an all metal, mechanical workhorse with a light meter being the only electronics. I worked at a neighborhood camera store as a teenager where they promoted me to Assistant Manager for a while before I went off to college. It was my first introduction into the world of optics and photography - and cameras.
Cameras were very different back in the 1970s. They were heavy metal and used film for taking pictures. There was no instant gratification as with digital photography today. As a photographer, because of all the variables in lighting, movement, f-stop, aperture and shutter speed, you shot many rolls of film hoping that a handful would turn out just right. Although I did freelance photography while going through college (even had a darkroom to develop pictures), my fascination was the cameras. These technical marvels had the power to capture a moment in time. We had a bin at the camera store of broken, discarded cameras and I would dissect them. Eventually, I was able to successfully reassemble them, too.
One day, a woman came in and wanted to buy the new electronic Canon AE-1. She had an older Yashica SLR she wanted to trade in, but she said it stopped working. I examined it. It was in perfect condition, so she probably didn't use it much. Many people bought fancy SLRs but rarely used them as they were too heavy and complex for family photos.
The shutter release button didn’t work and the film advance lever was stuck. If it was a Canon, or Nikon or even a Minolta, it may have been worth sending in to fix, but a Yashica? I saw it’s future in the discarded camera bin. She mentioned she didn’t like it and wanted something easier to use so she did buy the Canon AE-1 and was happy with the $20 I gave her for trade-in on her broken Yashica.
After the Holiday rush, I came across that Yashica in the old camera bin and decided to dissect it. I was determined to fix this one as it was otherwise in perfect condition. I laid out a white piece of paper and some two sided tape (to hold the tiny screws) and when I got down to the mechanical gears that advanced the film cartridge I discovered a tiny loose screw wedged into the gear. Removed it, reassembled it and the camera was as good as new.
You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with Pelco, the onetime king of industrial strength, commercial grade video surveillance pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras. I recently had the privilege of visiting the factory in California, where I watched them fabricate and mold metal, solder printed circuit boards and assemble cameras for shipment. They may have been dethroned by Axis and Sony, but in 2006, when I worked on the homeland security camera deployment for the City of Chicago, Pelco was the standard. This $3000 analog camera is still a marvel of optical, and mechanical technology.
One ended up in the “junk bin” at the office one day back then. I inquired about it and they informed me it was broken and not covered under warranty. It appeared one of the installers wired the power wrong and fried it.
“I’ll take it,” I said, and IBM let me have it. It isn’t every day that you get to dissect a $3000 Pelco Spectra IV.
When I dissembled it, I admired the industrial design and quality. I found my way to the printed circuit board on the back box where I noticed a blown fuse. I replaced the fuse, reassembled it and the camera booted up and was as good as new.
Over the years, this camera has survived being used for imagery and testing for my Digital Video Surveillance and Security book, a divorce, three moves, nine Chicago winters, with a few snow storms, 100+ F August days, and even a flood. Although the Pelco Spectra IV was 18 feet high on a pole, the power supply and video encoder fried while underwater.
This past weekend, we closed our cottage, where the camera resides for the past couple years. I moved it from that pole to the back of the garage. While I singlehandedly tried to install it, the camera module popped out of its back box and housing and fell 15 feet to hit the leaves and rocks below. There was no dome to catch it. During my visit, Pelco gave a me brand new clear dome. I didn’t add it because I did not want to scratch it during installation. Rookie move. (They really need to get away from the snap-in tab design and move to screws like everyone else).
My heart sank as I watched the camera fall in slow motion and make impact on the ground and bounce like a basketball. I tried the camera and of course it didn’t work. I don’t know of many electronics that can survive a 15 foot fall. It was a hour or too later, after the initial shock subsided that I decided to dissect it and see if I could do something. After all, this was the mighty Pelco Spectra IV. There was a piece of plastic broken off around the lens. Not a good sign.
When I got to the internal PTZ mechanism, it seemed fine. All the gears and belts were still linked together and working smoothly. That’s when I noticed the sensor printed circuit board had popped out of its bracket and was no longer connected to the back box mount. With some finesse, I was able to lock it back in place. I reassembled the module and plugged it back into the backbox inside outdoor enclosure (and quickly added the dome).
I powered the camera up and it came back to life. I smiled. Made in America and even after a 15 foot drop, it takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
Let’s hope the same holds true for Pelco as a company.