In my discussion of the invention of Rondinax and Rondix tanks, I said I thought I had identified one of the inventors of the latter, Rudolf Strauss, a British subject, continuing to work with Wilhelm Kehr.

After World War II, a series of inventions was patented by Kehr and Strauss with Michael Lesjak or the last-named’s next-of-kin. The applications were made between 1950 and 1952 with patent cover being granted in key parts of the world. As outlined in the page on Patent History, only one invention made it to manufacture—as the very simple, very clever and very effective Rondix daylight-loading tank for 35 mm film.

A search jolted my memory. I had seen Rudolf Strauss in the 2001 book, Hitler’s Gift, The True Story of the Scientists Expelled by the Nazi Regime, by Jean Medawar and David Pyke (Arcade Publishing). This book details the lives of those scientists and a few engineers who were forced to emigrate by, who were rescued or who escaped from Nazi Germany before World War II. His invention of ‘wave soldering’ revolutionized the electronics industry

Rudolf Strauss was born in 1913 in Augsburg—an important point for our interests to which I shall return. A distant cousin on his mother’s side was Albert Einstein. His parents took Rudolf to Berlin to ask Einstein if Rudolf would be able to earn a living as a physicist. He was then educated at Munich and Leipzig universities, and, finally, at the Technical University of Dresden. He completed his course but from Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, he was, as a Jew, forbidden from entering academic premises. Two or three (depending on the source) members of the university professoriate smuggled the university seal out of their office in order to validate Strauss’s certificates in physics by the dead of night.

Strauss’s father thought things in Germany would be sorted out, even with Hitler at the height of his powers, and so stayed put as others left. They did get out—at the last minute—with the help of the British industrialist, John Fry, and his wife, friends of the family. Rudolf, the young physicist, was given a temporary job in the research laboratory of Fry’s works in London. The temporary job lasted for 40 years.

Instead of welcoming the refugees who were seeking the downfall of Hitler with open arms, at the outbreak of war the British government rounded them all for for internment as enemy aliens. In Strauss’s case that meant being shipped off, as one of 2500 on a ship, to an internment camp in Australia. Fry’s persuasive efforts resulted in his return to Fry’s Metal Foundries where he specialised in soldering. He was involved in patenting a number of new fluxes, some of which are still made and marketed as Fry’s even though the company has since been taken over.

His great success came with the invention of ‘wave soldering’. He collaborated with Paul Eisler, the inventor of the printed circuit board, to develop the technique and to build in 1958 a machine that would solder thousands of electrical connections in one operation. Such machines, in more and more sophisticated forms, are in use all over the world. Strauss’s invention was a key development in the development of the electronics industry. I suspect his contribution was not sufficiently recognised, as was, and probably still is, often the case of scientists and engineers working in industry.

He retired in 1977 and taught soldering techniques throughout the world and was a consultant in metallurgy. He wrote the definitive book, Surface Mount Technology, which was published in 1994. In 1990 he completed his diploma at Dresden, 52 years after his progress was blocked by Hitler et al. Then, in 1994, he was awarded a Doctorate in Engineering by Munich, at the age of 83.

In 1946 he married his cousin Anna Weil (1921-2011) also a Bavarian refugee in London. She became a successful painter, also designing superb posters for London Transport in the early 1960s. They were divorced but were only apart for a matter of months; they remarried.

Piers Plowright wrote an obituary in The Independent (7 July 2001). It began:

Rudolf Strauss was a splendid exception to C.P. Snow’s theory of the Two Cultures. A brilliant experimental scientist and inventor of the “wave-soldering machine that revolutionised the electronics industry, he could talk brilliantly about art, music, philosophy, the theatre and cooking.

and ended:

For the last 20 years he swam, summer and winter, in the ponds on Hampstead Heath and it was after a swim on a perfect June morning that he sat down un a sun-lit bench and died: the way he’d always said he wanted to go.

I tracked down the current address of Rudolf Strauss’s daughter and she confirmed that the Rudolf Strauss at the address shown in the 1950s patents for daylight-loading developing tanks was her father. I am most grateful to her for doing so because it fills an important part of the story of Rondinax and Rondix tanks.

But how was Strauss involved in the invention of daylight-loading tanks. He was, at the time, working for Fry’s. The clue lay in the fact that all the inventors were from the Bavarian town of Augsburg. To see if Strauss had known or had been involved with Lesjak and Kehr in the 1930s before he left Germany in something of a hurry, I extended my patent search backwards. Sure enough, there he was, with Lesjak and Kehr as the inventor of a device to load multiple spirals for a daylight-loading tank. The German patent (extract shown below, with the original swastika blacked out by the postwar government) was applied for on 16 January 1936 and granted on 16 February 1937.

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His involvement in further patent applications was blocked. From 1938 Strauss could not be involved in any application for a patent; dissidents, foreigners and Jews were prohibited from applying. Existing patents held by Jews also had to be transferred to an non-prohibited German citizen. The bureaucracy of sheer evil never ceases to amaze and horrify.

Considering the fact that the 1950-52 patent applications were made as soon as a German patent system was re-established after the war, my suspicion is that Lesjak (and his heir), Kehr and Strauss were simply carrying on where they had left off; in other words, that they had been friends or colleagues in Augsburg and that the inventions patented in the early 1950s had actually been conceived in the late 1930s.

Whatever emerges through further research we do know that Rudolf Strauss, metallurgist and engineer, was an important player in the development of daylight-loading tanks. So, if you are lucky enough to own a Rondix tank for 35 mm film and while using it are asked what you are doing, you can reply, ‘Operating a device invented by Einstein’s cousin’. That should take the questioner aback, giving you sufficient time to say, ‘His name was Strauss—Rudolf Strauss’.

Agfa Rondix

Agfa Rondix

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