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A Tribute to the Man Who Invented Minox
Dr. Walter Zapp 1905-2003. Rest In Peace


(Written by and used with permission of Gerald McMullon, www.submin.com)

Subject: Minox is My Life - a video monologue by Walter Zapp

minox dr zappThe CLX Special Edition was released in 1998 to celebrate the 60th year of the Minox Ur, the prototype of the family of Minox 8x11 cameras. To accompany the brass shell chrome plated camera is a video tape of 96 minutes. (Steve's note: this same tape later was included in the Minox Historical Society EC Special Edition Camera Package).

The video tape is available in VHS format in PAL (English and German), NTSC (in English). Copies can be ordered from Minox in Germany. I have no price on this as my English copy was given to me and the German version came with the CLX. Minox GmbH are considering a new release of the video in the latter part of 2002; presumably if they think there is the demand.

Walter Zapp opens his monologue with a quoting "When you look back at the life of a person you get the impression that it was based upon a sensible plan but a plan unknown by that person. When I look back I get the impression that Goeter was right."

The monologue then opens, as it closes with Walter Zapp using the Minox Ur, held very shakily by a man then at least his 92nd year. The Ur is now at Minox headquarters in a showcase with all the Minox models - alles in ordnung - the family is together again.

What Herr Zapp outlines in his monologue has already seen publication in the works of Heckmann(1), Moses(2) and Young(3). What the video gives are the stories retold by Walter Zapp in his own words. From his recount, you can tell the turning points of his life and what he deems important.

In a steady, very clearly spoken voice Walter Zapp recounts his life from the beginning.

Walter Zapp was born in 1905 in Riga, Lativa. When he was four and not yet able to express himself clearly he told his mother that he wanted to work in a factory. He hadn't seen a factory, not even the outside of one. His mother, horrified, tried to explain to him that he should become an engineer. To explain this further she said that he must show others what to do. Walter misunderstood again and he had the image of a supervisor or manager. No he wanted to do something himself.

Another event sticks in his mind. He passed by the school yard at playtime and the noise made a terrible impression upon him and his subsequent school life was terrible. The next turning point is when he went to the photographer, in traditional sailor suit. He was fascinated but left with questions that he did not have answered for more than 10 years.

The first world war taught him real hunger. He was a poor student and was unhappy there. This led to a total nervous breakdown in the summer of 1920, and under doctor's recommendations he quit school. His six weeks of convalescence was a decisive time and he was at last rid of the horrors of school. He studied a book on engineering. Although not a very good book, from it he learnt the first principles of physics, geometry and technical drawing.

He got, from a friend, a broken toy projector, and with this, his first lens, he undertook experiments on his own. From his position and through his lens he became aware of for the first time a factory, Valsts Elektotechniska Fabrika (VEF).

Also at this time he became very friendly with an old Jewish plumber who helped him in his experimentation and gave him his first and only lessons in basic technology - how to solder.

walter zapp

Dr. Walter Zapp in 1995

He got an apprenticeship in his uncle's printing business. But his hands where too shaky for work as a lithograph. The family moved to Reval in Estonia (now called Tallinn). He took a job as an engraver, but real engraving took more steadiness of hand. After half a year he found a position with the most famous photographer in Karstrasse in Reval. This was in spite of considering a darkroom as the "dark black hole" and vowing never to become a photographer, and with the gentle persuasion of his father. Here he met his next teachers, the eldest employee Johann Livenstrom and journeyman Woldemar Nieländer who spent much time with him. Nieländer in turn introduced him to Nikolai 'Nixi', Nylander's youngest brother.
   Here he heard talk of focal distance and realized that this is what his experiments near the VEF factory had been about. He now sort tirelessly to question those things that where important to him. He thought, geometrically, that very small recording formats should be of greater advantage. Additionally the camera would be smaller and most importantly could be carried everywhere. Why this had not already been done he could not understand, He asked Nylander, who avoided answering him, but Livenstrom answered "Zapp is going to invent a camera". This surprised Zapp, he was talking about possibilities, but the idea took hold. He was leant a book by an Austrian employee entitled "Compendium of Photography", which had an explanation of focal points, close up and calculations.

1924 saw him again with out work and was when he made his first patentable small invention, an improved cutting machine for pictures. But he was a poor negotiator and nothing came out of the foreign interest.

In 1925 his employer used a Leica, so a small format cameras was not so crazy, but it was still a long way off what Zapp was considering.

In 1928 he spend 4 years and 4 unhappy months in a "dark black hole". During the evenings he continued his tinkering and documented itemsthat he invented. On the last day of his job he met Richard Jürgens, a school mate of Nixi Nylander. Jürgens wanted to order a special enlarger from Zapp. On one of his visits to check up upon progress,he brought along a Russian photographer, Volga. To make a joke at Zapp's expense, he asked "He is building you a Rolleiflex?" Jürgens, the amateur took him seriously and asked "Can you do that?" Zapp's immediately response was "No, not that, but if it were something simpler and not just one."

"Okay, you found your factory here, I'm leaving." Jürgens had to go along with him, but as he left he said "We must talk about this".

Zapp was concerned, because he lacked faith in his own ability. It was now or never. Jürgens had no technical knowledge and left it all to Zapp, a trust Zapp felt he did not deserve; he was after all a self taught tinker. Jurgen funded a minimal project. During a walk Jürgen asked what Zapp thought of the small camera format and when would it end. To Jurgen's annoyance Zapp replied "Never". So Zapp was warned off revealing what he had in mind.

In 1934 he told Jürgens a parable. You know that the big ocean liners are all unsinkable but they carry on them life boats just in case. "So?" I have to admit that we are sailing on such a giant and we aresinking. And I too have a small lifeboat just in case. And showed him a small wooden block I had prepared earlier and had held hidden in his hand.. this graphically demonstrated how small a camera could be. Jürgen now understood.

But could something so small really work? With the technology of the time a double cassette seemed the best solution, but without plastic they had to be welded in tin. However, the cost of a picture has to be kept low and so the film would be 50 pictures long. Niki was asked for an option. Niki saw the wooden block and asked for all sorts of wishes. Zapp thought the professional must be right. Later Niki thought Zapp had really gone mad and his wishes were to humour him. They then considered a name. It was very different from anything at the time, so it had to sound as if it was a camera. First it must remind one of photography, like Contax. Next it was miniature, and then Nike came up with 'Minox', miniature and replacing 'a' with 'o'.

On 16th August 1935 Zapp finished his last diagram. Professor Schulz in Vienna calculated the miniature lens for them, but he was in no hurry to complete the task. In 1936 Zapp had all the parts, including the camera lens. Hans Eppner was not equipped to undertake the assembly of the lens, but tried. The lens was not symmetrical and this faulty lens is still in the original Minox. They had neither the time or funds to make a change now. So by late summer Zapp made his first test pictures. The film size was, for good reasons, 6.5x9mm. Firstly when introduced in centimetres it was easy to remember, and secondly was reducing waste. If you took a normal non-perforated 35mm film you get four strips of film without waste and enough space for the border in the new format. He made enlargements up to 13x18cm and put them on display.

Jürgens failed to get support in their homeland and then he remembered an acquaintance, an Englishman (whose name Zapp can not remember). He was the representative of a company he never heard of, VEF in Riga. But it was strictly an electro technical company. This was the first person who understood, was convinced, and contacted his company in Riga. Zapp had to look for this company and then he realised, this was the company he had stood before when he undertook his optical experimentation.

The director, Vitols, doubted the samples and wanted proof, under supervision, to take photographs and process them. When he was shownthe results he stood up and said congratulations. As a state company approval had to be sought higher up. At that time no one knew Latvia, a small country. Recognition came in wartime, "Riga, yes, that iswhere the little Minox comes from". And the hopes of the directorywere realized.

Zapp was given a tour of the factory, his first visit to such a place and he was amazed. With such equipment and in Reval Vitolsinterrupted "you created a miracle". Zapp narrates "He was mistaken." A much greater miracle was that VEF in 18 months created a new product and brought it to market. At this time, everything was made in the factory including the precision lens.

In April 1938 the camera was introduced to the domestic market and then to the international market. An American from a large department store came for the Minox. In principle, they answered yes, but onlyif you can guarantee an order of 100,000 per year. Vitols planned a second factory.

But in 1940 their homeland was turned over to the red empire and Zapp's business was at an end. Communism did not recognize private business. Zapp's contract included the clause that if for any reason VEF could not make payments then the rights returned to Zapp.

minox riga

The original Minox, the Riga

At this time the repatriation "Home to the Reich" was organized. Zapp however stated. In 1941, he heard a rumour that a position was reserved for him in Moscow, in other words deportation. The time had come and he calculated that if he travelled in the only direction still open he might survive. He also hoped that the established industry in Germany would be interested in his product. The naïve Zapp seems to have ignored the war and continued with attempts to achieve his goal - production of his Minox. He wrote first to Leitz. Leitz well knew the Minox, and Zapp was invited to the factory. Leitz was interested in the Minox, but until the war was over he wanted Zapp to work on the Leica. A high honour for which Zapp was not prepared for. He felt inadequate to high ranking engineers but he also wanted to do his own thing. Zapp however did get work forJürgens who stayed in Wetzlar, possibly saving his life.

Zapp moved on. First to Zeiss-IKON and meet the father of the Contax, who was interested, but remote. He was willing to agree to an option contract, but not until the war was over. As Zapp didn't respond, he said "What do you think? That we can not develop a miniature camera without you". Zapp answered "Yes Herr Doctor, that is what I believe" and Zapp continues "and I still believe today."

German invaded and VEF became war booty and Zapp had no choice but to go back to there. There he learnt of the fate of the only Jewish colleague in the factory, who disappeared; this was normal. Although Zapp seems to feel that this is important enough to raise in his monologue, he adds nothing more to the fact.

The Russians returned and Zapp was offered a position with AEG in Berlin to work on the electron microscope.

In 1943 the institute was bombed and they were moved to the country. They joined up with Zeiss-Ikon and Zapp took lodgings with the homeof an employee who was in a concentration camp and whose wife was Jewish. Zapp was asked if he had a problem with that. He replied "No of course not". Fortunately, the man was released after one year. So this too has stuck in Zapp's mind, but he lets the facts pass without further comment.

The sounds of the front arrived here too and they moved west towards Helmbrecht, in Balvia. Here they met the Americans. The first order,under penalty of death was that all photographic equipment was to be turned in. Too risky to hide, but too precious to hand in he did neither and went to the authorities to plead his case to keep the Ur,a Riga and the wooden block. The officer in charge was, as Zappnoted, Jewish. Zapp handed over the cameras and explained what they meant to him. The reply from the office was surprising. The officerasked what he would take for the cameras. By law they whereconfiscated. He was then taken under escort to the headquarters inBayreuth. It was a possibility but he had to hand over the cameras.Then several weeks later a high ranking office came to his house withthe cameras and asked what he would take for the cameras. He saidpolitely that he couldn't sell them. The office said okay, asked fora drink of water and left and that is how Zapp got to know the Americans.

In the early post war days everything was in ruins. Zapp was inHelmbrecht and Jürgens in Wetzlar. But Jürgens had got in contact with the American authorities who wanted to concentrate the German optical industry around Wetzlar. With American help in obtaining equipment the found a small room in the Wetzlar Bahnhofstrasse and so Minox GmbH Wetzlar was founded.

The Riga could not be produced. It was designed for production in their homeland where labour costs were cheap. Here things were different and it could not compete. The camera had to be redesigned and Zapp wanted to include new ideas. They gave themselves a year. Former colleagues from VEF were recruited. Jürgens now had to find apartner for production. Here Zapp said they made a seriousmiscalculation. The industry was in ruins and Jürgens turned to an investment agent. He had a rich capitalist with lots of money.

An appointment was arranged in Heuchelheim, near Glesson and they met Herr Rinn (Rinn und Cloos). Here they were asked about capital turnover and at what profit level; things they never had concerned themselves with at VEF. Capital was available and they took advantage of this, to their later misfortunate. Their contribution was capitalized, their abilities where given a value, and the other side offered cash. They were 50:50. The other side well knew that this was not enough. After the war there were no suppliers and for different reasons to those at VEF they had to manufacture everything in house, including the smallest screws. This required more investments and their share became a quarter, then an eight and then less and less. But to get production going they continued and even Zapp's control over production was removed from him. After the move to Heuchelheimin 1948 production began and the cameras reached the market.

1950, Walter Zapp leaves the company following irreconcilable differences with his then partners. Zapp needed to control development and production to create the extensions to his vision.The 'suits' had other ideas and did not even include him in decisions and appointments. Although these details have been published by Heckmann, it is only from Zapp's personal history that you can see how badly this affected him. He had no choice but to leave.

Four decades later another circle would close and Walter Zapp received the recognition he deserved. During that time his miniature camera became a unique hit around the globe, a status symbol and to the unhappiness of its inventory the tool of choice for the underworld and espionage.

walter zapp jani stradinu

Dr. Zapp with Jani Stradinu, president, the Latvian Academy of Science

It was 1988, Zapp had no contact with Minox and was working on small photo formats hoping to come up with a whole new concept. All his oldpartners had died, and his wife was ill. He thought it was all over. Then, out of the blue, he got an answer - Minox is bankrupt. Thegrandsons of Herr Rinn were out of office. A new start was possible,but to re-start a bankrupt company is crazy and on the other hand itis crazy to buy such a run down company. Then he got a call from the Minox Company, the bankruptcy liquidator. He came to Zapp in Switzerland and by 1st September 1989 a limited agreement was drawn up. But nothing happened until the end of 1995 and a new interested party turned up - Leica. Minox Wetzlar could again become a reality. So after 46 years Minox GmbH retained Walter Zapp as a development engineer. "Should I succeed, in what I have set out to do, then it will be the miniature camera of the 21st Century. Even if I should not live to see it. If it succeeds then that is enough. "

Postscript. After finishing my notes from Walter Zapp's own words I read in detail the history as reported by Heckmann, Moses and Young. But why did he and the VEF technicians change to the 8x11 format? That and other questions remain unanswered.

The Zapp's account is a well rehearsed story and the four accounts do differ in minor details. Moses for example adds that during his interviews with the US intelligence he insisted that the cameras were not solely his property, citing the legal agreement with Jurgens and through these the connection to VEF/AEG and VEF-AG in Switzerland. A tactic? No I don't think so; it was the truth. Why had Zapp not mentioned this in his monologue? Selbverständlich, it was the right thing to do.

Which of the four accounts is the more accurate? That, I shall leave you to decide.

(Excellent work Gerald. Thank you for allowing me to share this. I encourage all to visit Gerald's comprehensive website www.submin.com ).

The founder of our company, full of tradition, died on July 17, 2003 at 97 years of age.