The original Minox subminiature camera was invented by Walter Zapp in 1936. Zapp, a Baltic German, was born in 1905 in Riga, then part of the Russian Empire. The family moved to Reval (now called Tallinn, Estonia) where he first took a job as an engraver before finding a position with a photographer. He became friends with Nikolai ‘Nixi’ Nylander and Richard Jürgens, and it was through discussions with these friends that the idea of a camera that could always be carried came to him. Nixi Nylander also coined the name “Minox” and drew up the Minox mouse logo. Jürgens funded the original project but was not able to get support in Estonia for production. Jürgens contacted an English representative of the VEF (Valsts Elektrotehniskā Fabrika) electrotechnical manufacturing business in Riga (by then independent Latvia) who then arranged a meeting where Zapp demonstrated the Minox prototype (UrMinox), with a set of enlargements made from Ur-Minox negatives. Production began in Riga at VEF, running from 1937 until 1943. In the same time, VEF had received patent protection on Zapp’s inventions in at least 18 countries worldwide.
Shortly after its introduction, the Minox was widely advertised in The European and American markets. It did not surmount the popularity of 35 mm cameras (which were then referred to as “Miniature Cameras”), but did achieve a niche market. It also attracted the attention of intelligence agencies in America, Britain and Germany, due to its small size and macro focusing ability.
Ironically during World War II production of the Minox was put in jeopardy several times as Latvia fell victim to invasion by the Soviet Union, then Germany, and then by the Soviets again. Cameras were produced under both Russian and German occupation nevertheless, and the camera became both a luxury gift item for Nazi leaders as well as a tool for their spies. In the meantime, Zapp and his associates protected their interest in the product by searching for alternative production facilities in Germany.
After World War II, production of the Minox II began in 1948 at a new company, Minox GmbH, in Giessen/Heuchelheim near Wetzlar, West Germany. The new camera very much resembled the original, but was made with a plastic chassis covered by an aluminum shell. This greatly reduced its weight and, to an extent, cost. The camera continued to appeal to a luxury “gadget” market which broadened during the 1950s and early 1960s. It also continued to see use as an espionage camera by both sides during the Cold War. During this time, the Minox company continued to develop the camera, working with Gossen to develop a companion miniature exposure meter, as well as improved models such as the Minox B, which incorporated an even smaller Gossen-designed meter into the camera itself. The Minox B became the most popular and widely produced model of the line. Further developments included auto exposure, and the company developed an extensive line of accessories. These included flash guns, viewfinder attachments, tripod mounts, and copying stands, all increasing the camera utility in a variety of applications. One accessory even allowed the camera to use a pair of binoculars as a telephoto lens (see illustration). Limited editions of the camera were also produced in a variety of luxury finishes, such as gold plating. Standard cameras were also available in an optional black anodized finish.
The Riga Minox camera, along with the luxury finish postwar cameras, are now collector’s items. Newer electronic versions, such as the Minox TLX, remain in production, essentially unchanged in features from the LX model since the late 1970s. With the introduction of the LX came significant redesign of the camera’s basic controls. There is also the fully electronic entry-level model, the EC, which has a very different internal design and has a fixed-focus lens. The production rate for these cameras is considerably slower than in former years, however, as Minox devotes more time to the design and marketing of OEM cameras under the Minox brand. The MINOX TLX Camera was available until September 2014.
The Minox subminiature camera attracted the attention of intelligence agencies in America, Britain and Germany, and most of the Eastern Bloc (East Germany, Romania) due to its small size and macro focusing ability. There is at least one document in the public record of 25 Minox cameras purchased by the US Office of Strategic Services intelligence organisation in 1942.
The close-focusing lens and small size of the camera made it perfect for covert uses such as surveillance or document copying. The Minox was used by both Axis and Allied intelligence agents during World War II. Later versions were used well into the 1980s. The Soviet spy John A. Walker Jr., whose actions against the US Navy cryptography programs represent some of the most compromising intelligence actions against the United States during the Cold War era, used a Minox C to photograph documents and ciphers.
An 18-inch (460 mm) measuring chain was provided with most Minox subminiature cameras, which enabled easy copying of letter-sized documents. The espionage use of the Minox has been portrayed in Hollywood movies and TV shows, and some 1980s Minox advertising has played up the “spy camera” story.
A Minox B, operated by remote trigger and protected in a special housing, was used to inspect the interior of the United States Army’s SL-1 experimental nuclear reactor after it experienced an internal steam explosion in 1961. This camera and housing were shown in the film report released following the accident investigation.