Precision and espionage
The Minox subminiature camera is a legend of technical precision and miniaturisation. It's likewise a legend of espionage and stealth. The Minox is habitually featured as a leading prop in most spy films (e.g. "Operation Cicero"). Hundreds of real-life spies have used it diligently and enthusiastically, photographing tens of thousands of secret documents and installations.
One Minox is prominently exhibited in the CIA museum. Russian KGB supplied this particular specimen to the American spy John A. Walker, who photographed secret National Security Agency codes with the tiny photo-mechanical marvel, a Minox Model C. He was later caught and convicted. The Soviets even manufactured their own Minox clone, called "Tocka" and widely used by the KGB.
The Minox is superbly suited for clandestine work. Minox A, the first post-war model, is only 8 cm long and 2.5 cm wide, with a thickness of 1.5 cm and weighing about 70 g. It feels no larger or heavier than a Zippo lighter. The overwhelming majority of all Minox cameras were of course not bought by spies. The convenience of always having a top-notch camera ready for action in your pocket or purse persuaded many ordinary people to choose a Minox instead of a similarly priced Nikon or Canon.
The man and the concept
The life and achievements of Walter Zapp, the inventor of the Minox subminiature camera, is no less a legend. Zapp was a Baltic German, born in Riga (then part of Czarist Russia) in 1905. At the outbreak of WW I the Czar’s authorities deported the whole family -- seemingly just because they were ethnic Germans -- to the Bashkir capital of Ufa, far away in the Urals. From there they couldn’t return to Riga until WW I was over.
In 1921 the 16-year-old Walter Zapp moved to Tallinn, Estonia, in order to learn a trade -- first to be an engraver and then to become a photographer. In 1924 he started work as a lab assistant and assistant photographer in Tallinn. Here he also designed and manufactured his first piece of photographic equipment, a semi-automatic copying machine for passport photos.
The 35 mm revolution
At about this time a sensational new camera had hit the market -- the 35 mm Leica "miniature camera". To get perfect enlargements from such small negatives (24×36 mm) was previously considered an impossibility. But Leica designer Oscar Barnack proved in 1925 that it could be done, provided that the optics and mechanics were manufactured with perfect precision. This ushered a revolution in the history of photography. A new era, the era of easy-to-handle, highly adaptable 35 mm cameras, with superb picture quality, had begun. We live in this era still today. Well, in reality just barely, because digital cameras are now on the verge of replacing all of film-based photography.
Young Walter Zapp had in the meanwhile been employed by a Tallinn photo shop (Rambach), one of the very first firms to sell the new revolutionary Leica 35 mm camera in the Baltics. He was extremely impressed by the Leica, as was everybody else. Could a camera with an even smaller negative size be made, without losing picture quality of the enlargements, Zapp asked of himself. He started tinkering and experimenting in his free time. By the early 1930’s Zapp’s ideas for a subminiature camera had matured. Together with another Baltic German, Richard Jürgens (who supplied money and business know-how), they started a firm in Tallinn for developing the smallest precision camera in the world.
Prototype and production
In 1936 a Minox prototype (using unbelievably small 8×11 mm negatives) had been crafted by Walter Zapp and the first (Estonian) patent had been applied for. Zapp and Jürgens were now looking for a manufacturer, but were unable to find a suitable partner in Estonia. Instead they found a manufacturing partner in Riga, Latvia -- the Valsts Elektrotehniskâ Fabrika-VEF (State Electrotechnical Plant).
In less than two years the first series-produced Minox subminiature camera, the so-called “Riga Minox” appeared on the market. The very first customer in 1938 turned out to be a foreign diplomat, making Walter Zapp suddenly realise that the Minox had a field of application that had never entered his mind -- espionage! The Riga VEF factory managed to turn out 17 000 Minox cameras before European political events and World War II made further Latvian production impossible.
The world-wide fame of the Minox camera has lately brought about a low-key, but discernible tug-of-war between Latvia and Estonia for the right to call it a "Latvian" or an "Estonian" invention. In 1994 an Estonian postage stamp was issued, featuring a facsimile of Zapp’s first Estonian patent application, and in 2001 the President of Estonia, Lennart Meri, awarded Walter Zapp the Cross of Maarja, one of the highest civilian medals of the Estonian Republic. Meanwhile Zapp -- a self-taught artisan without even a high-school diploma -- was made honorary Doctor of Science by the Latvian Academy of Sciences.
This state of affairs is rather curious -- in reality the invention can neither be called Estonian, nor Latvian. Because the design work was carried out without involving a single Estonian or Latvian. It was done solely by Baltic Germans, a breed of people ordinarily not very popular in Estonia or Latvia, due to the 700-year serfdom suffered by both peoples under the descendants of the German Teutonic Knights. But although the invention is clearly both non-Estonian and non-Latvian, the honour of having produced the first Minox cameras belongs unquestionably to the Latvian factory Valsts Elektrotehniskâ Fabrika-VEF.
Spoils of war
In 1939 the totalitarian friends Hitler and Stalin agreed to divide Eastern Europe between them. The agreement (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) stipulated that Latvia and Estonia were to go to Russia. At the same time Hitler summoned all ethnic Germans outside Germany to "return to the Fatherland". In early 1940, when Russian occupation of Latvia seemed imminent, both Walter Zapp and Richard Jürgens heeded the call and moved to Germany.
Once the Russians had moved in, they continued producing the Minox in Riga. So did the Nazi Germans, after having attacked its former ally a year later and occupying Latvia. Production of the Riga Minox continued until 1943, when the war finally made work impossible.
After World War II Zapp and Jürgens decided to start renewed production of the Minox, this time in Western Germany. Walter Zapp designed a new improved model -- Minox A -- which came to the market in 1948. The Riga Minox was made of stainless steel, but the new Minox A used light metal alloys, reducing camera weight by half. Minox A started the global post-war success of the Minox concept.
In 1958 a new model, Minox B, was introduced and produced in parallel with the original model A. Minox B was equipped with a built-in selenium-cell exposure meter (light meter), which was mechanically coupled to the exposure-time setting. It was only slightly longer (by 1,4 cm) than model A, didn’t require a battery, and made the shooting of perfect pictures much easier. Because the small 8×11 mm negative is not particularly forgiving -- exposure mistakes show easily in the finished enlarged picture. With the built-in light meter in Minox B, such mistakes could now be conveniently avoided.
Minox C, with automatic electronic exposure, followed in 1969. It was significantly longer than Minox B (by 3 cm) and required a battery. Further subminiature models (LX, CLX, et al) are mainly elaborations of the Minox C. To my mind the automated features do not offset the disadvantages of increased size and weight. Minox B is probably the optimal realisation of the original Minox concept.
In parallel with the Minox subminiature camera the Minox company has manufactured a number of various precision products over the years (miniature binoculars, a small 35 mm camera, etc). But these are not among the things that the company will be remembered by in the history of photography. Its truly memorable achievement is the production of the series of "real" Minox subminiature cameras.
The inventor behind it all, Walter Zapp, died in 2003 in Switzerland, at the age of 97.
Personal experiences of noder, who owns 3 Minox models - Minox A, Minox B, and Minox C.