From the very beginning, subminiature photography has been an essential ingredient in the history of photography. Subminiature cameras have been a major factor in the evolution of cameras and photography as we know it today. As a result, the history of subminiature photography -- even SPY photography -- closely parallels the history of general photography.

Photography did not develop overnight in one location. It evolved over many years through the work of many people in various locations. Cameras and lenses had been evolving since, at least, the time of the Greek classic civilization. Although these "camera lucidas", as they were called, did not use film, they were used by artists and others to project images for reproduction as well as to entertain and amuse.

The first film was developed in the nineteenth century. It is generally accepted that the first photographs were taken by Niepce in 1826-1827. He soon teamed-up with Daguerre who in August of 1839 announced the development of the Daguerrotype. Since the "paper" for this process was a copper plate carefully polished and plated with silver, the first cameras, by today's standards, were large and the resulting images small.

Subminiature photography quickly emerged through the work of Steinheil. By December of 1839, he was making a portable Daguerrean camera which produced images of 8x11mm. These were barely viewable with the naked eye and were used mainly for portraits to be placed in broaches and other jewelry. While this idea never really caught on, his work was important in several ways. First, his idea of a small, portable camera was very popular and led to the development of smaller, out-of-the-studio designs for regular cameras. In addition, his use of super-wide aperture lenses (such as f2.5) lead to the use of much faster lenses in other branches of photography. With the very slow "films" of the time, faster lenses were a definite advantage.

At the same time (1839), a microscopist named Dancer caught the Daguerrotype "bug" and redesigned it for use with his medium -- the microscope. He could take pictures of tiny objects, but discovered that by inverting the process and placing the "film" where the microscope slide normally goes, he would end up with incredibly tiny pictures of life-sized scenes. So, in the same year that the Daguerrotype was developed, the first micro-films were achieved. At the time, they were used primarily as a novelty, since the pictures had to be viewed through a microscope, but this achievement would have long-lasting implications.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, new, faster, flexible films were created. This, combined with other factors encouraged the evolution of subminiature photography. Most of the cameras of the time were large, heavy objects that required a portable darkroom. The new, flexible roll film got rid of the traveling darkroom. New forms of transportation made travel possible for a large segment of the population who now wanted smaller cameras to record their journeys. The interest in the new medium of photography was so great that even the lower classes wanted to have cameras. This meant offering less expensive cameras and the easiest way to accomplish this was to make the cameras smaller. Even war played a big part in the development of subminiature photography. Without the electronic methods of communication, such as telephone or radio, communication through battle lines was very difficult. Carrier pigeons had been used for some time, but one small piece of paper cannot carry much information. It was discovered as early as the American Civil War that the same pigeon, carrying microfilm, could literally transport a book. Perhaps the most important factor in the development of subminiature photography was the prudishness of the Victorian era. Even more so than today, people in the nineteenth century were disinclined to have their pictures taken, except under professional, studio conditions. One way around this was to design very small or disguised cameras for unsuspecting snapshots. By the turn of the century, cameras were showing up as books, hats, walking sticks, lunch boxes, binoculars, pocket watches and other common items.

The world of subminiature cameras in the 20th century was encouraged by two unrelated events.  The first was the development of the Minox camera in the late 1930's by Walter Zapp in Latvia.  What he wanted to achieve was a pocketable, take-everywhere camera at a reasonable price.  Using tiny 9.5mm film, he succeeded beyond all expectations and a full line of cameras evolved and is still available today.   The second event was the destruction of Japan and Germany in World War II.  These countries had a high consumer demand for cameras, but their economies were destroyed by the War.  The only way to supply the demand was to make inexpensive, small, simple cameras.  Many new submini designs developed as a result.  

Subminiature photography has continued to flourish through new wars, formal and informal espionage, new lens designs, new film developments, the space race, inter-company and inter-national competition and many other factors. For more information about the design and development of subminiature cameras through war and peace, check out the library.

If you have any ideas, suggestions or comments about these pages, please contact the Sub Club at the FRONT DESK.

To return to the main index for the Sub Club click here.

COPYRIGHT @ 1995-2019 by Joe McGloin. All Rights Reserved.