60 years - 20th Century Minox

Introduction | A brief history | 60 years | Key Events | Minox is an eye | Seeing with the Minox | Minox Focusing Tips  | The Mysterious Door ... | Design Influences of Leica on Minox | Die MINOX ist Mein Leben | Walter Zapp 1905-2003

There are two grand old men, born at the beginning of the last century, whose names can be found at the very end of every encyclopedia and inventions fit into any pocket. They are Walter Zapp and his Minox since the early thirties, and Konrad Zuse's computer only since the seventies, when powerful electronic brains were first miniaturized. While Zapp still pondered on improvements in the field of miniature-photography at the age ninety, his 85-year-old inventor colleague, Zuse, shuned PCs, spending his time as a painter.

Walter Zapp was born September 4, 1905 in Riga, Latvia. His mother was of German-Baltic heritage, his father a Rhinelander raised in England. Heritage and fate determined this cosmopolitan's life. From 1922 to 1924 he apprenticed as a photographer in Reval (now Tallinn) under Walter Lemberg, the leading art photographer of the Baltic.

From his first year of study, Zapp was obsessed with the idea of constructing a miniaturized camera. He found conventional cameras too large and heavy and difficult to handle: "A camera one can carry along everyday without a hassle, should be so small as to vanish in a clenched fist." The idea stayed with him. Ten years later, with financial support from his friend Richard Jurgens, he developed plans for a very simple camera, a wooden model of which (dating from 1934) measured 13 x 28 x 75 millimeters (this original model is still his constant companion). Jurgens and Zapp had founded a business in 1932, the former providing funds and the latter his know-how and Zapp now concentrated solely on developing miniaturization techniques, working with the 6.5 x 9 mm picture format.

Zapp knew he could not achieve his goal by simply miniaturizing a standard camera. Such an apparatus would have been little more than a luxury toy. Scales, buttons and levers would have been too small to use without a looking-glass and pincers. Thus only functionality and ergonomics guided the construction of the Minox. The small, elegant stainless steel apparatus so markedly deviated from the technology of the period that one of the most important tasks in marketing the product was to make it recognizable as a camera.

In August 1935 the production drawings for the mechanics were completed and the optics calculated by Professor Schulz of Vienna. The precision mechanic Hans Eppner hand-crafted the components of the silver-plated prototype. Snapshots taken with the original Minox received enthusiastic responses. Zapp's Minox was registered for a patent world-wide - including Estonia, where his original idea had been conceived. He was honored, somewhat belatedly, in 1994 when the newly constituted Estonian Republic issued a commemorative stamp featuring his Minox construction draught.

In the autumn of 1936 Walter Zapp entered a production contract with VEF (Valst Elektrotechniska Fabrika), a large electrotechnical manufacturer in Riga. Production commenced in 1938 - exactly one hundred years after photography had been invented. The first camera was sold to a diplomat, who probably used it for spying an application Zapp had never considered, but which was pivotal in establishing the Minox' reputation as a precision camera for document photography and secret snapshots. A total of about 17,000 subminiature cameras of the 'VEF-Minox brand' were sold until the outbreak of World War II. With the occupation of the Baltic by Russian forces, production continued under Soviet management in 1940/41. Thus slightly less than 2,000 cameras came to be 'Made in USSR'. Today, the legendary Minox Riga is in high demand as a rare collector's item. In March 1941, Zapp headed west with his wooden model, the prototype built by Hans Eppner, and the first production-line camera. He took up work at the AEG research institute in Berlin, contributing his knowledge and experience to the development of the electron microscope.

A New Beginning in Hesse

With the end of the war, this task also came to its end. one of the first actions taken by the American military in their occupation zone was passing an ordinance ordering Germans to turn in any items of worth, including cameras, under the threat of the death penalty. Luckily, a compassionate officer permitted Zapp to legally retain the proof of his inventorship, the original prototype camera and the first 'Minox Riga'.

Zapp was intent on starting anew after the horrors of war had ended, facing the challenge of independently manufacturing his invention. Richard Jurgens, Zapp's friend and business associate, had started working with Leitz in Wetzlar and brought Zapp there in September 1945. That month they founded Minox GmbH in Wetzlar, Hesse,  and started working on improving their camera.  The famous 'Complan'-lens, a new shutter and two light-filters were created during this period; also the famous measuring chain, whose distance beads made possible a quick and exact distance setting when shooting close-ups. Heavy exterior parts were replaced by anodized light metal and the brass body gave way to one made by aluminium.

Pressure Castin. The bright frame finder conceived by Zapp soon became a standard feature in view-finder cameras world over.

A year of independently conducted preparatory work was followed by the search for a business associate who would finance production and marketing. Ideally, this should have been a partner well established in photo-technology, but companies at the time were too preoccupied with rebuilding their own operations. This was when the cigar manufacturer Rinn & Cloos (R&C) entered the scene. The company was seeking to diversify, as tobacco was scarce and could only be obtained with foreign currency. Thus Minox cameras, already established as an export success, were bartered for tobacco and became somewhat of an informal currency in the trade of the post-war years. In 1948 Minox moved to the R&C premises in Heuchelheim near Giessen. It was there, that Minox cameras where manufactured for 50 years - modified and technically enhanced over the years, but still the elaborately hand-crafted masterpiece in opto-electronics and precision engineering it always was. More than half a century Minox made in Germany: the highs and lows of a company's history - but most of all the history of a brilliant concept, which continues to fascinate pros and amateur photographers alike....to vanish in a clenched fist.

Dissonances evolved in the odd partnership that finally led Walter Zapp to break with the company in 1950; he would later remove to the solitude of the Swiss Alps to pursue his calculations and construction work in subminiature photography unbridled by business squabbles. Forty years would pass before the Minox inventor and his production firm re-established contact.

Minox A - Symbol of the 'Economic Miracle'

Meanwhile 'the Minox' was turning into a major commercial success reflecting the economic upswing of the German 'Wrtschanswundet ('Economic Miracle'), and was soon recognized as a symbol of the quality 'Made in Germany' stood for, similar to the Mercedes, the VW Beetle or the Montblanc fountain pen. The production process was further rationalized and new accessories created which widened the camera's range of applications. Simultaneously the sales and client service network grew denser and denser. Scores of camera dealers had their employees trained in the Minox system at company seminars. Minox was one of the few camera manufacturers to produce each and every component of its cameras, from shutter to lens, itself. More than one-thousand production steps are involved in assembling the multitude of individual components of a subminiature camera to form a product measuring up to the highest standards of optical and mechanical precision.

Milestones: Microfilm and Minox B

For a time in the 1950s' delivery times for Minox cameras likened those of Mercedes automobiles, such was the popularity of the minuscule apparatus among professionals and amateurs. Milestones in this period were the entry into the microfilm business in cooperation with the federal railway and the postal service in 1956, as well as the introduction of the Minox B in 1958. Although it featured an integrated selenium-based exposure meter this new subminiature camera was only negligibly longer than its predecessor. During its first year production span the Minox B advanced to become an unmatched best-seller.

From Minox C to TLX

The electronic revolution began as early as 1969 at Minox. The new Minox C was the first camera of its kind with an electronic exposure meter and remained a top-selling product for almost a decade. In contrast, the mechanically operated BL model featuring a shutter-coupled CdS exposure meter (introduced in the summer of 1972) remained a 'sleeper'.

Progress in electronics was at the heart of the new top-of-the-line model introduced in 1978: the Minox LX, which featured shutter speeds of up to 1/2000 second. After seventeen years in production this leader among subminiature cameras received a new look. Designated Minox TLX and available since summer 1995, in time for their 50th Anniversary that autumn has an anodized titanium body, black focusing scales and a black brand-name signature. This masterpiece of camera technology is hand-assembled out of 275 components.

Since 1981 the Minox EC with a fixed-focus lens has been available for 8x11 formats, yet the camera is only slightly larger than the original Minox prototype. The slogan "No one needs more camera than this" was once again exemplified in 1992 by the Minox AX. This camera combines the solid mechanics of the legendary 'A' model with the subtleties of the 'LX: pure camera - no batteries, no electronics.

From the smallest subminiature camera to compact role model

The 1970s witnessed a deluge of low price compact-cameras flooding the market. Minox saw its subminiature business slacken, as its precision mechanics and high-grade optics could not be had at give-away prices. The company reacted by launching the Minox 110 S. which differed from run-of-the-mill pocket cameras in its high technical quality and special features, such as aperture priority automatic exposure and superimposed-image rangefinder. Minox courageously sought a market niche in the face of a slump in the field of viewfinder cameras. At the 1974 Photokina, the Minox 35 EL, the smallest full-frame 35mm camera ever constructed, created a sensation among the professional audience and amateurs alike. The success of this compact model featuring aperture priority automatic exposure (AE) and a high-quality 4-element lens was overwhelming. Viewfinder cameras for the 35 mm format were in such high demand that Minox had trouble filling orders for years on end. Minox' decision to enter the 35 mm market constituted a decisive impulse triggering the continuing trend in the entire industry to make this the classic compact camera format.

In 1973, among photographic outlets, in German, the BL had a poor reputation, but this may have been a symptom of the firm at that time and the general market. The cost of Minox equipment outside of Germany was much higher than the exchange rate fluctuate and transportation costs would indicate. The UK price was double that of Germany. Within a couple of years Minox subminiature cameras disappeared except in specialised German photographic shops. This decline coincided with the introduction of the 35mm range of Minox cameras in 1974 which was an attempt by Minox to find a new niche market and to break out beyond the realm of subminiature cameras.

State-of-the-Art Development

To this day the successful miniature camera series has seen continual improvements. The Minox 35 GL (backlight switch) was introduced in 1979, the 35 PL (programmed AE) in 1982, the 35 PE (integrated computerized flash) in 1983, the 35 ML (aperture priority AE and programmed AE) in 1985, the 35 MB (aperture priority AE) in 1986, the 35 AL (fixed focus) in 1987, the Minox 35 GT-E (integrated skylight-filter, ergonomic design) and 35 AF (auto focus) in 1988, the 35 GSE (improved take-up spool and manual snapshot option) in 1991, the new M-series leader Minox 35 M-D C (light metal body) in 1992, and in 1995, as top-of-the-line model of the G series, the Minox 35 GT-X (DX coding and snapshot option).

From the End, a New Beginning

Three decades of continuous and increasing success finally came to an end on January 1, 1989, when, as a result of the pressure from Asian competition, the price slump in the camera market, the weak dollar (50% of the business was in export!), and some ill-fated management decisions, Minox was forced to file for bankruptcy. Dr. Wilhelm A. Sdhaaf and Mr. Dirk Pfeil of FrankfurVMain, two well-known trustees and experts in company restructuring, have managed to prevent the company's liquidation by implementing a major restructuring program while further developing the product-line and focusing the employees creative potential.

While steadfastly defending its home turf -- the market for high quality miniaturized cameras -- Minox expanded its activities in the fields of know-how, optics, precision mechanics and electronics as a result of a series of customer contract work. This created new and promising business opportunities. Miniaturization remained a cornerstone of the entrepreneurial concept. 

Walter Zapp has also contributed his share of innovative potential. The 90-year-old inventor developed a miniature telescope, which has been in production at Heudhelheim since 1990 as the Minox T8. 

Further plans included the expansion of markets, as well as joint-ventures and close cooperation with potent and qualified partners that synergize with Minox's corporate identity and philosophy. Minox sought a motivated and financially powerful investor, who would creatively and forcefully bring the company's innovational potential into play in new and existing markets.  It found this in Leica which bought Minox and has boosted this floundering business with an infusion of financial support and advertising. 1

Golden Treasures

The Minox anniversary in 1995 relates to the death and rebirth of Germany fifty years previous and coincides with many other events that year. Besides launching the TLX that autumn two special models in a limited edition where brought out. The small MINOX AX Gold, a replica of the A model from 1945 with all the technical details of the camera in current production (but purely mechanical), and also the MINOX LX Gold. Both hand-assembled anniversary cameras bear the facsimile engraving of the inventor, the signature of the 90 years old Walter Zapp. They where delivered in a polished walnut box with a brown leather case, a gilded measuring chain and certificate. 

Golden MINOX cameras have already been produced on earlier occasions. A Minox B with crown and crest of the Windsors went to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1965 and was completely overhauled recently in Heuchelheim after obvious signs of wear and tear showed it had been in constant use. Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, and the talk showmaster Hans Meiser both photograph with golden MINOX cameras; so does Gotz George alias "Schimanski". The Hollywood star Anthony Perkins had a platinum Minox LX, and the most expensive German camera in production costing almost 10.000 DM was the Minox LX Sterling made in 1992 out of solid 925 sterling silver; the hundred purchasers insist on absolute discretion. The earliest gold Minoxes where of the model A with versions later of the B and C. Gold Selection editions of the LX where produced in 1987-88 and of the AX in 1992-93/

The standard, basic Minox model has also been used as a photographic notebook by personalities through the course of time - President Eisenhower and Frederike, the Queen of Greece. Andy Warhol created innumerable works of art with his Minox. He knew how to use the surprise effect in situations where nobody had a camera in the hand. The inconspicuousness of the tiny camera has made it a standard requisite for the 'soft felt hat' all over the world. The Minox often plays an important supporting role in spy thrillers as well as with real-life agents.

Thanks to:
Michael's Camera & Video
PO Box 2047S, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 3001
International Prefix +61 3
Ph: business: +3 9672 2224 Fax: +3 9600 0898
Michael's Camera & Video Home Page

Last Updated on 18th July 2003

1. Minox bought out 51% of Leica in 2002 and saw them clearing stock in 2003 of all film cameras and launching short production runs of digital cameras.