One of the most amazing and legendary inventions of the 20th century, the Minox camera, first saw the light of day in Riga in 1937. Riga was also home to the camera's inventor, Walter Zapp.
Walter Zapp was born in Riga in 1905. His father, Karl, a sales rep, was a British citizen and his mother, Emilie Antonia Ida Burchard, was a Baltic German. In 1918, the Russian ruling powers deported many inhabitants of Riga, including the Zapp family, to the city of Ufa in the Urals. After the Zapp family returned to Riga in 1921, the family decided to head to the West, through Tallinn. Karl traveled to Tallinn first and his family followed later.
In early 1922, Zapp found work in Tallinn's best art photography studio, as an apprentice to Walter Lemberg. There he learned both the art of photography and the mechanics of how cameras worked. That same year Zapp first came up with the idea to create a tiny photo camera. In 1932 Zapp and Richard Jurgens established a joint venture, in which Zapp undertook to invest ideas and Jurgens agreed to invest the necessary funds. Over the next four years, collaborating with optical expert Karl Indus and engineer Hans Epner, the firm created the prototype for a unique camera.
However, Zapp and Jurgens were unable to find a firm, either in Estonia or elsewhere, ready to manufacture a miniature camera. Nobody believed that something so unprecedented had been made.But then Zapp made a proposal to the Tallinn representative of the Latvian State Electronics Factory (VEF) , who, in 1936, organized a meeting for Zapp and Jurgens with the director of the VEF factory, Teodors Vitols. The management of VEF was sympathetic to the idea, though it was a risk. The factory had never manufactured anything like it before. That fall, Zapp returned to his native Riga, signed a contract and together with Latvian engineers and designers they began to prepare the product for industrial manufacturing. Ancillary equipment was developed as well: enlargers for copying photographs from 6 x 9 cm. To 24 x 30 cm. , a Minox tripod mounting, developing tanks etc.
The first commercial Minox sees the light
In December of 1936 VEF submitted three patent applications, indicating Walter Zapp as the author.
It was important to give the camera a suitable name; Zapp and his friend Nikolai Nylander came up with “Minox”. The first patent applications were registered in Finland. Later, applications registration followed in more than twenty other nations. In 1937, an experimental prototype was created, under conditions of great secrecy. The first industrially manufactured prototype worked perfectly. Official production of the camera started on April 12, 1938. The Minox miniature camera was a revolution not only in Latvia but in the entire photo industry. In the 1930s , Minox was the only camera that worked telescopically, by pulling open the casement. This was a technologically new principle, as was the double cassette where unperforated film was inserted. The Minox camera could be purchased at the VEF store in Riga, on the corner of Brivibas bulvaris and Raina bulvaris for 248 Lat. Soviet films often show a spy photographing documents with the VEF Minox camera. This conception of the tiny camera is popular today, too, though the camera itself wasn't made for this purpose. This use was an invention of movie directors, though the secret services have sometimes employed the Minox camera, as its technical specifications permits the photographing of documents at distances of only 20 cm. In addition, the camera was very small, measuring 19 x 27 x 80 mm. ; weighted only 125 grams and could be used to make fifty photographs. By 1942 VEF had manufactured about 17.000 Minox cameras, which were exported to developed countries all over the world.
Minox camera history after 1940
When the U.S.S.R. first occupied Latvia in 1940, manufacturing was not stopped. The inscription “Made in Latvia” was merely replaced with “Made in U.S.S.R.”. Ironically cameras with the latter inscription are now considered a rare, valuable and much desired item by international collectors. VEF ceased to manufacture Minox cameras in 1942, at which time the Minox manufacturing equipment was brought to Germany, where it stood, disassembled, for more than two years. At the beginning of World War Two, Zapp fled to Berlin, where he worked in the microscopy department at AEG. In 1945 Zapp and Jurgens founded the firm Minox GmbH in Wetzlar and began to manufacture photo cameras.
At the time, the Minox camera, along with its ancillary equipment, was a modern product with an elegant design. The camera continues to be unparalleled today, though the German company has improved it many times, using electronics, even going so far as to gild the body of the camera. Around 1950 Zapp had a conflict with the management of the factory and left for Switzerland, where he continued to work on calculations and designs in the field of miniature photography. Zapp's collaboration with Minox GmbH was finally renewed in 1990 after Minox was taken over by Leitz. Today, the street in Wetzlar where the headquarters of Minox GmbH is, has been renamed in honor of Walter Zapp.
In june 2000 Zapp, along with his son and several representatives from the company visited the Latvian Photography Museum, the VEF Museum and the office of former VEF director Teodors Vitols, where the first contract was signed in 1936. On April 24, the Latvian Academy of Sciences awarded Zapp an honorary doctorate. The legendary inventor died in 2003, at ninety-seven years of age.