Walter Zapp

Inventor of the Minox mini camera

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk