"The Minox is my life."

-- Walter Zapp

MHS Logo
Minox Hisorical Society

Site Navigation


Minox Historical Society

Minox Encyclopedia

- A- B- C- D- E- F- G- H- I- J- K- L- M- N- O- P- Q- R- S- T- U- V- W- X- Y- Z- #-

Product Profiles

MHS Publications


Site search
Web search

powered by FreeFind

Translate This Site!




Walter Zapp

The following is excerpted from the book, Minox - Marvel in Miniature,
by D. Scott Young, 1st Books, 2000. Used with permission of the author.


Walter Zapp, inventor of the Minox 8 x 11 camera, was born in the town of Riga, Latvia, on 4 September, 1905. Walter's father Karl had been a traveling representative of a manufacturing concern throughout the late 1800's and into the early 1900's. It was on one of these trips that he stopped in Riga, where a friend provided an introduction to Julius Burchard. Burchard was successfully operating his own large commercial business at the time, and it was presumably through this connection that Karl Zapp met Burchard's daughter, Emilie. The two were later married, and together introduced two sons into the world, Walter, and his brother Edgar.

Although educated largely in England, Karl Zapp had been born of German extraction, and this served to brand him as a foreigner of sorts in the eyes of the ruling Russian Czarist regime.

  The young Walter Zapp    

Thus, at the beginning of World War I, the Russians classified him euphemistically as being "...of German Origin...", and promptly shipped both he and his family into exile in the Russian Urals area. At war's end in 1918, Emilie Zapp would return to Riga with her two sons while her husband took a more circuitous route: being diverted to what used to be known as Reval, Estonia, the father would eventually be reunited with his family almost 3 years later, in 1921.

It can be clearly seen that the events of the time did not serve to provide the most stable background to grow up in. Walter's schooling was sporadic, interrupted by the moves of the war, and finally ending in 1921 at the eighth grade level. It is important to note that his early years and education, being interrupted by both the politics of the times and recurring bouts of illness and depression, provide an unusual foundation for the inventiveness he would be known for all his life.

As was not unusual for the time, Zapp drifted through two short lived apprenticeships before finding himself in the employ of Walter Lemberg in Reval (now known as Tallinn, Estonia). An art photographer, Lemberg's circle of business and personal acquaintances naturally included other photographers, so it is to be expected that Zapp would eventually meet Waldemar Nylander, another photographer. It was Waldemar's brother, Nikolai, who would turn out to be Zapp's closest friend in a relationship that would last throughout life. "Nixi", as he was affectionately known as, was also an art photographer and it is not hard to imagine the long conversations shared by the two in this still relatively young and growing field.

Nikolai is credited with inspiring Walter's first invention, a paper cutter geared specifically to photographers. Zapp was twenty years old at the time he filed in Estonia for the patent on this invention, no small accomplishment for one so young. This would be the first of many such patents filed by him, for he had displayed an insatiable curiosity coupled with a distinct mechanical aptitude from the time he was a boy. Somewhere in the 1920's Zapp became intrigued with the idea of a small, precision camera that would be the equal of the much larger machines available at the time, in terms of usefulness and most importantly, the quality of the finished product: the photograph itself. The idea would become an obsession with him over the next 10 years.

Zapp wouldn't see a Leica camera until 1925, and like most of the world around him, would be fascinated with the quality of photography produced by what was then considered to be a true "miniature" camera. Zapp continued to toy with his concept, actually going so far as to sketch out some of his designs and mail them off to Oskar Barnack, the Leica's inventor in Germany. It is not difficult to imagine that the young and aspiring inventor looked up to Barnack as the premier photographic inventor of his time, and would seek the honor of having his design concept examined by Barnack himself. We will never know what might have been possible had the people of Leitz responded to Zapp's overtures, but in truth, he never heard a word from them. Zapp was conceivably far enough along in his design process to consider seeking financial backing to produce a prototype, however, as luck would have it, the world as a whole was plunged into the depths of an economic depression that would later emerge as a cornerstone historical event marking the early 1930's.

Startlingly enough, Zapp would receive a modest financial backing in the form of financier Richard Jurgens, beginning in 1932. Nikolai Nylander's belief in Zapp's abilities prompted him to seek out Jurgens on Zapp's behalf, and so, Jurgens sought out Zapp in the family home, then located in a Revalian suburban community. He must have been impressed during that first meeting, for he ordered Zapp to build him a custom film enlarger for printing as a test of Zapp's engineering abilities (presumably, he also needed one!). Several more meetings between the two would occur, and a protective Nylander would be instrumental in hammering out an informal arrangement whereby Jurgens would put up the money, and receive in return 50% of any financial profit realized from Zapp's largely experimental work at that time.

This "partnership" would continue until shortly after the formal cessation of hostilities in World War II, but it is ironic to note here that the device that would ultimately make Zapp famous was the one idea that impressed Jurgens the least. It appears that Jurgens thought the concept just a bit too radical to be profitable, and instead, pushed Zapp constantly to design a twin lens reflex camera that would improve upon the then untouchable Rolleiflex from Germany. Zapp never let go of his idea however, and slowly over time, with a lot of timely persuasion from Nixi Nylander, Jurgens became as convinced as the others in the commercial potential of such a small device.

He started by carving a small block of wood with rounded corners, no larger than a present day package of chewing gum. It was unquestionably light, but moreover, it felt good to hold, encouraging one to slip it into a pocket. Decades later, engineers and designers world wide would incorporate just such planning into the execution of a myriad of products, even give it a name: "ergonomics". In 1932, however, such planning was an unusual consideration, and stands undeniably as one of many things that would endear the Minox camera to photographers throughout the world, for years to come. It was one of several feats of design genius that would become the hallmark of the Minox camera.

Zapp began with the size of 35mm film as a starting point in working out the complex relationship between film size and lens (on paper: the calculator as we know it would not be invented for decades). These, along with an incredibly detailed and intricate set of formalized design plans, would result in the first working prototype Minox camera, now familiarly known among collectors as the "Ur-Minox", irrevocably linked to its birthplace in Estonia.

Having gone through a long list of likely names that his friend had drawn up, neither Walter or Nikolai felt their imaginations fired by the sound of any one of them. Nylander was half joking when he proposed "Minox", but Zapp was instantly convinced of the "rightness" of the sound upon the ear. It at once implied a sense of the miniature nature of the little marvel, while keeping the familiar "-ox" suffix that was so popular among camera names at that time. The trademark curved lettering of the Minox name would later be determined by the VEF works in Riga, who would manufacture the first production models.

By late 1936, with many delays caused by the lack of the skilled labor such work demands, the very first Ur-Minox was assembled. There exists some confusion regarding the body material, some stating it was brass, others stating it was stainless steel; in any event, it would be significantly heavier than later models using aluminum body shells (beginning after World War II). It should be noted here to collectors and potential users that the Ur-Minox, constructed on the basis of Zapp's original calculations, utilized a different sized film than the 8x11mm film cassette now universally recognized as the "Minox format". The newer format would be incorporated later, in the second Minox model variation, that known to collectors as the "Riga-Minox". Zapp would work out the new film dimensions as part of several enhancements to the original design.

Jurgens, against the advice of numerous others, had chosen to stay on as Zapp's primary funding source and apparently sought the interest of Agfa, Germany. Agfa would miss a significant opportunity here, but it remains part of the mystery and excitement of the history of this camera that it would succeed in spite of this. In an effort to bring in the sort of professional facilities, personnel and financial backing such a project would require, Jurgens brought the idea to a local representative of the Valsts Electrotechniska Fabrika, VEF-Riga. An appointment with the technical director of the manufacturing concern, Theodors Vitols, was arranged for in the fall of 1936, and the rest, as they say, was history...

Vitols would prove instrumental in bringing the camera to the public as a production item, but, at the time, he was extremely difficult to convince. Having brought with them the only working prototype and some 5x7" enlargements made from initial negatives, Jurgens and Zapp found a man unwilling to believe that such good photographs could possibly have originated in a camera so small. He challenged the duo to shoot some photographs right there in his office, in front of witnesses, and develop them for his inspection. It took a few hours for the VEF people to develop the film, but when the finished negatives and enlargements finally arrived in Vitols's office, he became an instant convert.

By October of 1936, VEF-Riga had executed a contract between the two men that provided for facilities and personnel assistance, and by November, Zapp had moved from Nomme, Estonia, to Riga. In yet another strange and ironic turn of events, a telegram from Agfa arrived requesting an inspection of the novel little camera, but they had already lost their opportunity. It is especially important to note here that from the beginning, Zapp had conceived of his camera as a "system" camera, complete with designs for a tripod clamp incorporating a cable release mounting, a negative viewer, an "auto-focusing" (!) enlarger and the famous daylight loading developing tank peculiar to the Minox line, later to be duplicated in a larger form by the makers of the popular GaMi 16mm ultra-miniature camera system. The designs for these were all specified in the original VEF contract.

Numerous personalities were involved in the production of the first Minox cameras, too many to list here. Uniform quality of production in making the shutter assemblies, problems in the film spool design and parallax correction in the viewfinder assembly of the original Ur-Minox resulted in the refinements that eventually produced the second Minox model, the Riga-Minox.

"Full production" actually began in 1938 at the VEF-Riga works, at the awe inspiring rate of two units per day...when considering the large number of tiny parts that had to be hand made and assembled, as well as the production facilities of the day, this is not as careless a remark as it might first seem. By the middle of 1939, production exceeded 180 cameras per month, and Theodor Vitals dispatched his nephew, Janis, to America to incorporate Minox there in an effort to break in to that potentially lucrative market; the first American advertisements from this New York office would be published and sales begun by 1940. Minox had already established a foothold on the British market with the formation of Minox, Ltd., in London.

The Riga-Minoxes were actually being delivered for sale in England by 1939, and with World War II a reality in Europe, the availability of these unique instruments became a real concern. Minoxes were being imported for sale in America, although prices had increased in direct response to the hostilities, almost doubling in some cases. By the time World War II entered full swing, over 17,500 of these diminutive cameras would have been produced, with a vast number being procured for use by the intelligence agencies of every country who would later become a participant.

Shortly after the Russian occupation of Estonia, warning in the form of urgent advice from friends, came to Zapp that the Russians, having an interest in his design work, would shortly be arriving to co-opt he and his designs, with the intention of sending him (against his will) to Moscow to work in one of their technical institutes. The thought of this so horrified him that he quickly escaped to Germany with thoughts of eluding the Russians and being able to continue his work on the fledgling Minox there.

Once again, he was unsuccessful with Agfa, and later ended up working for AEG's research and development arm, the Research Institute in Berlin. Again, the Minox was deemed a relatively minor accomplishment, and thus, of no real concern to them, particularly caught up in war production as everyone was at the time. Zapp would remain there until V-E day in 1945, where he would be found among thousands of other homeless refugees in a displaced persons camp.

Several times during his stay there his identity was proven solely by his possession of the original Ur-Minox and one of the VEF-Riga prototypes, although in fairness he was insistent in informing anyone who cared to ask that he no longer had sole ownership of these items, specifically mentioning his earlier agreements with financier Jurgens and the legal ties to VEF-Riga, VEF/AEG and VEF-AG in Switzerland.


In a convoluted process typical of the confusion of the times, Jurgens finally found Zapp (Jurgens had been working with Leitz, Inc. by that time), and they were formally incorporated as Minox GmbH., Wetzlar in late 1945. Other engineers and production people from VEF-Riga who had escaped the advancing Russian onslaught filtred in, some having managed to smuggle much needed tools and dies peculiar to the manufacture of the Minox camera with them.

Being provided with a workspace in the facilities of the Rinn & Cloos tobacco distributors buildings, Zapp began work on the design of the Model II Minox, incorporating a number of significant improvements over the original, “Riga” model camera. Although the subsequent lens design in the Model II nearly doomed the camera,

  Walter Zapp.    

Zapp presided over a redesign that was incorporated in the highly successful Model III camera. Besides the aluminum body shell that greatly lightened the camera, the Models II and III set the mechanical, optical and engineering standard for every 8 x 11 format camera that would follow from Minox.

Sadly, and almost unbelievably during this time, Walter Zapp made a complete break with the Rinn family, and left the company he had largely made in his image. Zapp himself maintains that the company was taken from him by financial people representing the original investors (presumably, the Rinn family). He remained a consultant over the years, as recently as 1990 inventing, and through Minox, producing the popular T-8 pocket telescope, among other things, but he would never enjoy as much influence in the future as he had during the first 16 years in the life of the Minox camera. Nevertheless, the personality of this remarkable man was indelibly stamped on the firm, and shows in the philosophy behind every subsequent camera and accessory in 9.5mm Minox would produce. In his early 90's now, Zapp resides as a citizen of Switzerland, still in contact with Minox, GmbH and a nation wide German Minox enthusiast's club.

April 20, 2001

Bobby's Home Page

This site is best viewed at a screen resolution of 800x600.
For questions relating to this site, please contact the webmaster.
Copyright 2001 by the Minox Historical Society. Reproduction in whole, or in part without express written permission is prohibited. "Minox" is a trademark of Minox, GmbH.
Last updated March 20, 2003. minox club society organization historical history museum group company association