Crazy Old Spy Cameras Made to Look Like Guns and Books
There is a scene in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service where Bond, James Bond, uses an itty-bitty camera to surreptitiously photograph maps showing where the Angels of Death plan to unleash biological weapons. The Angels of Death are fiction, but the camera everyone’s favorite spy used—a Minox A III—is quite real.
The Minox, which could fit in the palm of your hand, is among 13 spy and cleverly disguised cameras Michael Pritchard details in his excellent book A History of Photography in 50 Cameras.
There was a time in the 1960s and 70s when it seemed every spy movie featured a camera that didn’t look like a camera at all. But concealed cameras are a real thing, used by actual spies and those who fancied themselves spies, and date back over a century. The Industrial Revolution brought new tools and techniques that allowed the creation of ever smaller and more intricate parts. This mechanization and miniaturization, and the invention of photographic dry plates, spawned an entire category of novelty cameras made to look like hats, books, and even firearms.
“The camera is an interesting case study for the history of technology and consumer demand,” Pritchard says. “Its design has been influenced by the materials available and the manufacturing techniques of the time.”
A History of Photography in Fifty Cameras, Firefly Books, 2015.
The Enjalbert Revolver de Poche, designed in 1882, shot pictures instead of bullets with every squeeze of the trigger. More literary types might have favored the 4×5 Scovills and Adams Book Camera, which resembled three leather-bound books strapped together. The miniature Ticka camera of 1906 looked like a pocket watch and even had a matching chain. It was so popular that even Britain’s Queen Alexandra had one.
These cameras might seem silly today, but they embody the era’s optimistic spirit of innovation. They also hinted at the cameras that intelligence agencies adopted during World War II. The Germans, for example, made a camera that looked exactly like a matchbox. Tripping the shutter was as simple as pushing the inner box forward, as if to remove a match. Not to be outdone, the US government created its own matchbox camera, the Camera-X. Allied spies sometimes circulated the photographs they took with it among underground resistance newspapers.
But it was Latvia that created the most famous spy camera, the Minox, in 1937. Its stainless steel body was just over an inch wide. When West German authorities arrested East German double agent Heinze Felfe in 1961, they found a dozen Minox films in his briefcase. Soviet spy Christopher John Boyce also used a later version of the camera, the Minox B, to copy top secret documents detailing the US satellite reconnaissance program.
Such things surely seem quaint when anyone with a halfway decent smartphone can take a halfway decent photo and our lives are awash in images. A History of Photography explains the technological and scientific changes that brought us here. “The camera has often influenced the type of photograph being produced and the type of person making photographs,” Pritchard says. “It has moved from being a handmade object to one that was mass produced, and it has responded to changes and taken advantage of developments in optics, chemistry and electronics—usually with the objective of simplifying and making fool-proof picture-taking.”
And protecting the world from the Angels of Death.