What Does A High End Camera Company Have To Do With Old Turn Signals?

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I'd like to think that, thanks to my efforts, Jalopnik provides more in-depth coverage of the rich and exciting world of automotive turn indication than anyone out there. Which is why I'm so excited to announce today I found an answer to a signal light question that's bothered me for years: what's the deal with that up arrow?

I've noticed this detail on a number of pictures of (almost always) European cars from the mid-20s or so. The detail is what appears to be an add-on light, much like an accessory spot lamp. The light has on it a single arrow, pointing upwards.


This has baffled me for years. What the hell would an upward pointing arrow indicate? My best guess was that the arrow would light up when a pressure switch in the seat was released, indicating that the driver had been raptured away. That could be pretty handy for all of us doomed to be left, you know, behind.

That's not what it's for, though. It turns out, it's an early turn indicator. This struck me as odd, since I've only ever seen these installed singly, on one side of the car. I assumed that for turn indication, you'd need at least two arrow-lights.

Boy, did I assume wrong.

See, I was an ass. My thinking was crabbed, locked into what I thought I knew about electrically indicating turns, so I didn't even realize the real beauty of these lights: the arrow rotates to indicate the direction of the turn!


Using a pair of low-powered electro-magnets and an automatic activation system when the steering wheel is turned (!), the pivot-mounted arrow would rotate in the direction of the turn. Using electromagnets was more durable and reliable than a motor, and is a pretty elegant solution.


Brilliant, right? Well it gets even better. These indicators are known as the Contax Turn Signal. Those of you who manage to be camera geeks as well as automotive geeks may recognize that name from a series of cameras (starting in 1932), which were very advanced and used Zeiss lenses.


This reuse of the name Contax is no coincidence — the Zeiss company built the turn indicators, and the Contax name was chosen for this product first, before it became the brand of a camera.

Zeiss ended up in the auto-accessory business because in post WWI Germany, companies had to do whatever they could to make money and stay afloat. Zeiss acquired the patents to the indicator from inventor Albert Ebner, and it proved to be a decent little side business, especially since high-end cameras weren't exactly flying off the shelf in a very economically troubled Germany.


Also interesting is the fact that the "Contax" name was picked from employee suggestions, which may be one of the first examples of a company using such a method to come up with a name. Oh, and the person who suggested the winning name received exactly one Reichsmark, which, if you were lucky, was enough for a down payment on a big pile of fresh nothing.


More exciting turn-indicator news to come!