Minox: History Of A Spy Camera

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The original Minox subminiature camera was invented by Walter Zapp in 1936. Zapp, a Baltic German from Riga (now capital of Latvia), discussed with friends the possibility of designing and manufacturing a camera that could easily be carried. Although there were compact 35mm cameras back then, like the Leica series, there was nothing small enough to drop inside a coat pocket and carried everywhere. After demonstrating a Minox prototype (UrMinox) at VEF (Valsts Elektrotehniska Fabrika), an electro technical manufacturing business in Riga, production began in 1937 and continued until 1943.

The Minox was widely advertised in the European and American markets. It never surpassed the 35mm cameras of the time in popularity, but it definitely achieved a niche market, seen as a "luxury item." It also attracted the attention of intelligence agencies in the U.S., England and Germany, due to its small size (80mm x 27mm x 16mm) and close-focusing ability.

As the Second World War raged through Europe production was halted in 1943. The operation was moved to West Germany in 1948, where a new company, Minox GmbH, began producing the Minox II. The camera continued to be successful in the luxury gadget market well into the 50s and 60s. It continued to be used by both sides throughout the Cold War. The Soviet spy John A. Walker Jr. used a Minox C to photograph documents and US Navy ciphers.

The espionage use of the Minox has been portrayed in Hollywood movies such as The Falcon and the Snowman, and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.

To this day these cameras are still in high demand, especially by collectors. Most models were discontinued a long time ago, but some of them can still be found in the used market. Some models continue to be produced in small quantities or to special order, and Minox has also made digital versions available.

Let's have a look at some of the models that are still available.


Minox B

Image: d4vidbruce/FlickrImage: d4vidbruce/Flickr

This spy camera was produced from 1958 to 1972, and became the most popular and widely produced model of the line. Limited editions of the camera were also produced in a variety of luxury finishes, such as gold plating. The camera has an ultralight aluminum shell and selenium meter. Like its predecessors it has a 15mm f/3.5 lens that is capable of focusing as close as 8 inches. The maximum focus zone is about one meter to infinity. The Minox cameras project an image of 8x11 mm onto the negative. The film is in strips 9.2mm wide, or less than one quarter the size of 35mm film. This film is rolled up inside a small twin chamber cartridge and on the B model it can produce 50 exposures. The film advances each time the camera is closed, regardless of whether a picture is taken or not. Price: $140 to $400 (Used).


Minox EC

The Minox EC subminiature spy camera was introduced in 1981. Sporting a black plastic body, rather than aluminum, it was considered a poor-man's spy camera. It has a fixed focus lens, ranging from 1 meter to infinity which makes the camera less suitable for document photography. It will take either 15 or 36 exposures, depending of the type of film used. When opening and closing the camera the film will advance only if a picture has actually been taken, which is a feature lacked by earlier models, where the film will advance when the camera is closed and opened, regardless of whether a picture was taken or not. Price: $130 to $400 (Used).


Minox MX

This spy camera comes with a 15mm f4.8mm lens, a detachable Minox MX flash (which is almost the same size as the camera), and is also made of plastic. Can be manually focused from 3 feet to infinity. This model doesn't use the close-open mechanism to advance film, like its predecessors. A thumb wheel allows one-handed operation, advances film and readies the shutter for next exposure. Measures 8.4 x 2.1 x 3.4 cm. Price: $70 to $150 (Used).


Minox TLX

The Minox TLX spy camera has an aluminum housing with a titanium anodized finish. Comes with a 15mm f/3.5 lens and electronic exposure meter. Focuses from 20cm to infinity. Aperture priority exposure from 1/2000 to Bulb. Manual exposure from 1/2000 to 1/30 s. This models is not easy to find nowadays, and can cost upwards of $700 when you find it online. But for collectors, this is one of the must-have classic models.


Minox DSC

This digital spy camera comes with a 5.1 Megapixel CMOS sensor. Takes pictures at a resolution of 2608 x 1956 and video clips at 640 x 480. The 128 MB internal memory can be expanded with an optional microSD memory card (up to 16 GB). The DSC flash module has an integrated 1.5" TFT LCD display where you can view your images. The camera is powered by a rechargeable Lithium Polymer battery. Transfers images to your PC via a USB cable. It can focus as close as 24 inches. Measures 3.4 x 1.14 x 0.78 inches. Price: $249 (New)

For those individuals interested in purchasing these cameras and actually using them --not that there's anything wrong with keeping them as display items-- there are still options in this digital day and age. OpticsPlanet.com still carries black and white 8 x 11 film for Minox subminiature spy cameras, and you can find rolls every so often on eBay. For film processing, try Blue Moon Camera. They charge $8 to develop a black and white roll by hand and $5 to develop color film by machine.

To read more about this subject be sure to check this article about modern day spy cameras.

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