The OConnor Story

75 YEARS OF CINEMATIC PRECISION WITH OCONNOR

OConnor Engineering Laboratories was founded in 1949 by Chadwell O’Connor. Chad, once a designer and builder of steam power plants, always had a passion for steam locomotives.

In the late 1940s, he decided to document them on film before they were all gone, but found it impossible to pan smoothly with his Bell & Howell camera. To solve this problem, Chad designed and built a Fluid Head camera support that would allow his lightweight camera to follow the moving trains without jumps, and distracting starts and stops.

– OConnor Product Manager Steve Turner with Chad O’Connor’s original camera and first OConnor fluid head.

One day, in 1949 while he was filming the trains at Glendale Station, another steam train enthusiast noticed this unusual setup and stopped to ask a few questions. He liked the concept, and asked Chad to build a Fluid Head that would solve pan & tilt problems on his new film, ‘The Living Desert’.

The man was Walt Disney.

Disney was so happy with his first OConnor head that he immediately ordered ten more. The ensuing collaboration resulted in the acclaimed documentary “The Living Desert,” which earned the distinction of winning the Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 1953—a testament to the transformative impact of O’Connor’s invention on the cinematic landscape.

To produce the new fluid head, O’Connor founded a part-time business in 1952, first building them in his garage and then from a small factory in Pasadena, which his wife Regina ran during the day. By 1969, OConnor Engineering Labs was so successful that O’Connor left his “day job” to work full time at OConnor Engineering. He enjoyed working with cameramen and inventing solutions for their needs.

Over the decades, OConnor fluid heads and legs have become indispensable tools on film sets worldwide, earning accolades from industry peers and practitioners alike.

– Behind the scenes of ‘The Game of Thrones.’ 

In recognition of his pioneering contributions, Chadwell O’Connor received many accolades, including the Class II Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1975, followed by the prestigious Academy Award of Merit in 1992. O’Connor and Disney maintained a lifelong friendship centred around steam with O’Connor designing the power systems for the steam launches and paddle wheelers at Disney World in Florida.

Beyond the confines of Hollywood, O’Connor’s influence extended to historical preservation efforts. In 1869, the Golden Spike ceremony marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad, uniting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railways at Promontory Summit, Utah, with the iconic steam trains Union Pacific No. 119 and Central Pacific No. 60 ‘Jupiter.’

– The Golden Spike Ceremony, 1869.

When, in 1975, the US National Park Service decided to faithfully recreate the historic engines just as they appeared in 1869, they approached Walt Disney Studios, renowned for their Disneyland railroad to build the reproductions, but Disney declined and instead recommended O’Connor Engineering Laboratories for the task.

Using over 700 meticulously recreated engineering drawings based on photographs from the era (since original drawings were lost), O’Connor built the legendary engines, the first steam constructions in the US in twenty-five years. Ward Kimball, a Disney animator, and steam engine enthusiast, contributed expertise in colour matching and original artwork, decorating the engines with vibrant paint, gold leaf, and painted scenes on the sand dome.

– Reproduction of Central Pacific No. 60 Jupiter.

OConnor Engineering’s history is proof that chance encounters can grow into great stories. A passion for steam engines turned into a long-lasting impact on the film industry. Today, 75 years on from his serendipitous meeting, O’Connor’s legacy continues to shape the art and craft of filmmaking, with the 1040, 2560, 2575D, and 120EX fluid heads a familiar sight

Today OConnor Engineering specializes in heavy-duty fluid heads, tripods and camera accessories. As a Videndum brand, OConnor has a large dealer networking spanning the United States and in more than two dozen countries across six continents around set.

The OConnor 2575 is the most used fluid head in the history of cinema. To celebrate OConnor history, we’ve introduced the 2575E Platinum Edition to mark 75 years since Chad O’Connor first showed his fluid head to Walt Disney. 2575E Fluid Head

Biography

Chadwell O'Connor

Chadwell (Chad) O’Connor, founder of OConnor Engineering, was an inventor, steam engine enthusiast, and is most remembered as the inventor of the fluid-damped camera head, an achievement for which he won an Academy Award in 1992.

O’Connor’s early home environment in his native Boston likely contributed to his active mind. Johnson O’Connor, his father, was a well-known psychometrician and pioneer in the study of aptitude testing. His mother died while he was young, and his father remarried MIT-trained architect and educator Eleanor Manning.

O’Connor attended the Stevens Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering.

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