The Valsts Elektronikas Fabrika (VEF) or The State Electronic Factory was always well known for the products it made. In the 1930s it began making the Minox Camera. The people of Riga opened their newspapers on April 8, 1938, to see the headline which read, ”Sensation in the field of photography!” The camera was created by Valters Capa who was born in Riga but his name in English is known as Walter Zapp.
The size of the Minox Camera was 17x27x80 millimeters and it weighed 125 grams. The design for this little camera was done by Adolfs Irbite who began working at VEF in 1934. The greatest thing about this camera was that the outside was made of stainless steel and when you opened up the camera by sliding a panel aside everything else was automatic and you were ready to take a picture. The new camera quickly became known abroad because of its convenience. When one bought this camera included were cassettes for taking pictures during the day, a camera stand, dishes for developing film, and high-quality photo paper. Because of the Minox’s mini size in the 190s and 1940s, it was also used by many spies. In October of 1938, the very first VEF Minox was presented to the President of Latvia Karlis Ulmanis. However, the Minox’s claim to fame was short-lived as it was manufactured for only four years from 1938 to 1942.
Let’s look into the life of Valters Capa or Walter Zapp. Capa was born in Riga on September 4, 1905, in a merchant’s family. His father was a citizen of Great Britain and his mother was of German descent. In 1918 the Russians deported the family to a city beyond the Ural Mountains and after they were allowed to return the family settled in Tallinn in Estonia in 1921. In 1922 Capa began apprenticing in a photo studio in Tallinn. Here he learned everything he needed to know about photo cameras and picture taking. Capa started playing around with the idea of creating a mini camera which would be convenient to carry around and easy to use. Capa and a friend Rihards Jirgens formed a company together in 1932 with Capa providing ideas and Jirgens money. The plan for the camera was developed with the help of optic Karlis Indusu and engineer Hans Epner. Unfortunately, Capa was unable to interest any factory in making this camera. Nobody was willing to risk their reputation on this mini camera. Finally in 1936 Capa and Jirgens had the chance to meet the director of VEF Teodor Vitols who was willing to take the risk and let the factory make the Minox camera. Capa moved to Riga, signed a contract and began working with Latvian engineers.
On December 21, 22, 23, and 24 four patents for the Minox camera were presented by VEF all mentioning the creator as Capa. The first patents were registered in Finland and later in over 20 countries. The first Minox cameras were available for sale at the VEF shop on the corner of Brivibas and Raina Boulevard in the center of Riga. The Minox cost 248 Lats. With this camera, one could take a total of 50 pictures. Until 1942 17,000 cameras were manufactured and were also exported to other countries. When in 1940 Latvia was occupied by the U.S.S.R. the engraving on the Minox camera which said Made in Latvia was changed to Made in the U.S.S.R. VEF stopped manufacturing the Minox in 1942 and all of the items needed to manufacture the camera were sent to Germany. When WW II began Capa went to Berlin and in 1945 he and Jirgens in the German city of Wetzlar established the company Minox GmbH and began manufacturing the camera again.
The Minox has been improved many times over by German engineers. When in 1950 Capa had a falling out with administrators at the German factory he moved to Switzerland and worked on small camera technology. He renewed his good standing with the German factory in 1990 and worked in the main building of the Minox GmBH Company. In 2000 Capa, his son and other representatives of the Minox visited the Latvian Museum of Photography, the VEF Museum and the office of the former Director of VEF Teodor Vitols where Capa in 1936 signed his contract with VEF. On April 24, 2001, the Academy of Sciences of Latvia honored Capa with an Honorary Doctors Degree. The legendary inventor departed this world at the age of 97. If you’ve ever dreamed of the intriguing and romantic life of a spy like James Bond you can purchase a mini Minox camera online. They’ve also got Minox Digital Cameras.