Walter Zapp

Inventor of the Minox mini camera
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The Independent Online

Walter Zapp, photographer: born Riga, Latvia 4 September 1905; died Binningen, Switzerland 17 July 2003.

As the inventor in 1935 of the Minox camera, Walter Zapp was one of the great pioneers of photography. It was the smallest camera in the world, designed to fit into a coat pocket and yet produce the finest quality pictures. When the Minox was first produced, it was met by a sceptical public in its country of origin, Latvia, but it was highly successful abroad, especially in the United States, and it soon became a "must-have" piece of equipment for intelligence services. In the post-war era, updated models became popular with the great and the good, from the British royal family to Andy Warhol.

Walter Zapp was born in 1905 in Riga, Latvia; his mother was of German-Baltic origin and his father was a Rhinelander who had spent much of his childhood in England. Regarded as enemy aliens by the Tsarist Russian authorities, the Zapp family was banished to Siberia. They returned to what had become the independent state of Latvia in 1918.

Zapp's formal education ended in 1921 and, after several jobs, he became an apprentice with Walter Lemberg, an art photographer in Tallinn, Estonia. Zapp displayed great curiosity, coupled with a natural ability with machines. He was largely self-taught in physics, geometry and technical drawing. Through his employer Zapp met many other photographers including Nikolai "Nikki" Nylander, who helped and encouraged him. Already by the age of 20 Zapp had patented his first invention, a paper cutter designed especially for use in photography.

Through Nylander, he was introduced to Richard Jürgens, a German businessman, who was prepared to back Zapp for 50 per cent of any profits. Jürgens' first order was for an enlarger, not a camera. The successful execution of this order gave Jürgens confidence to invest in Zapp. In the meantime, Zapp had come up with the idea for his miniature camera to rival the Leica.

He prepared a prototype housed in a wooden body shell with a specially manufactured lens from Vienna. Nylander came up with the name, Minox. The German photographic giant Agfa appeared to show no interest in Zapp's designs in the early 1930s, and it was under the influence of Jürgens that he turned to the state-owned Latvian radio and electrical firm, VEF.

In the autumn of 1936, Zapp signed a contract with VEF, and production started in 1938. About 17,000 cameras of this design were sold all over the world, including the United States and Britain, before the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940. The story goes that the first one sold was bought by a diplomat for espionage purposes and certainly this model found wide military use during the Second World War.

In 1941 Zapp moved to Berlin where he worked for the AEG research institute contributing to the development of the electron microscope. When the war ended, in 1945, Zapp made his way to the American Zone of Germany. Zapp was lucky enough to find a sympathetic US officer who allowed him to keep his cameras. Together with Jürgens, Zapp then established the Minox GMBH, in Wetzlar, Hesse, and production started in a small workshop. Because of the lack of other backers in the photographic industry, they went into partnership with a cigar manufactuer, Rinn & Cloos.

Disagreements with the Rinn family led Zapp to pull out of the firm in 1950 and shortly afterwards he moved to Switzerland. His camera succeeded commercially in the new climate of the German economic "miracle". Over the decades the company kept up its research and development and was highly successful selling export-led products. Yet in 1989 it narrowly avoided bankruptcy hit by Asian competition and bad management decisions, and Zapp was persuaded by the liquidator to renew his association with the firm. In 1996 Minox and Leica decided to co-operate and went into digital photography.

Among the honours which Zapp received was the German Cross of Merit, and a street was named after him in Wetzlar.

David Childs