Walter Zapp never really had the chance for a formal education. Born in Latvia in 1905, his family drifted around Eastern Europe in the wake of World War I, and he suffered from boughts of illness and depression, his education finally sputtering out before high-school level.
The teenage Zapp didn’t last long at apprenticeships with a printer or an engraver, either. When he finally found an occupation that suited him, it was with fine art photographer Walter Lemberg. Zapp was fascinated by the mechanics of photography, and became obsessed with the idea of creating a tiny camera, one he could carry in his pocket. For inspiration, he chopped a chunk of wood down to the ideal size—something between a cigarette lighter and a packet of chewing gum—and set to work.
The Riga—named after Zapp’s birthplace—was barely recognisable as a camera. It had a narrow, silver body made of stainless steel. One dial on the top controlled shutter speed, from 1/2 to 1/1000 of a second, while the second focused the lens. Sliding the camera open and closed advanced the film. When the shutter fired, images 8 x 11 millimetres in size were exposed onto the negative, each smaller than a fingernail.
Zapp took the prototype to Latvian radio manufacturer VEF. Management insisted on watching Zapp photograph then develop the prints from the camera to ensure there was no subterfuge—the images really came from a device that small.
Zapp invented a brand name, Minox, and the Riga went into production in 1938. The idea of a ‘vest-pocket camera’ was so compelling that an American retailer immediately placed an order for 100,000 units. VEF was in the process of building a new factory in Riga in order to accommodate this when World War II broke out. In late 1939, British Intelligence bought all available stock. (One British MP surreptitiously, and illegally, photographed Neville Chamberlain addressing the House of Commons in 1940, thought to be the first-ever photograph of the House in session.)
Intelligence agencies were attracted not only to the camera’s size, but its close-focus capability—it could capture objects just 20 centimetres away, making it ideal for recording documents. In 1942, the United States’ Office of Strategic Services bought 25 Rigas.
When Russia occupied Latvia in 1940, Minox production continued under Soviet control; the following year, the cameras were manufactured under German supervision, this time with engraved swastikas, before Riga fell into Russian hands again in 1944. A stack of Riga cameras was found at Hitler’s stronghold Berchtesgaden when it fell in 1945—they had reportedly been intended gifts for Nazi leaders.
After the war, Zapp moved to West Germany, where he continued to develop other models under the Minox brand. These were advertised throughout science magazines in the 1960s as a luxury item—an “elegant companion, like a fine watch, for sophisticated ladies and gentlemen to carry and use to record the events of their daily lives”, read one advertisement in Life. James Bond uses a Minox A IIIs in the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, although George Lazenby holds it upside-down, and the cameras appeared throughout films and TV shows into the early 2000s.
The camera is so small that actors throughout the decades can be spotted with their fingers over the viewfinder, and they are almost never seen manually focusing it. (Some models came with a 46-centimetre chain with spaced beads that allow for precise close-focus distance measurements.)
Non-fictional spies continued to favour them, too—Soviet mole John Walker Jr used a Minox C to photograph US Navy documents in the 1970s.
More than a million of Zapp’s tiny cameras were sold in his lifetime—he died in 2003, at the age of 97—but he didn’t enjoy the wealth generated by his invention; he’d sold the patent after World War II for a lump sum and a modest annuity.