Walter Zapp (1905-2003) was born in Riga to a family of Baltic German descent, on 4 September 1905. In 1921 the family moved to Estonia and settled in Tallinn (in Nõmme district). Zapp’s prowess as an innovator showed early signs of promise, as the first patent to his name was registered as early as 1925. Zapp is world-renowned for creating the infamous Minox spy camera, widely acknowledged by historians of photographic technologies as a brilliant innovation and a quantum leap in photographic technology. The miniature “pocket camera” has been lauded as the darling of the moneyed elites, which was advertised in world-famous publications including Fortune Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. But the roots of the mini camera can be traced back to Estonia where it stands out as one of the most famous innovations designed here. The original prototype constructed by Zapp, the “Tallinn Minox” (also known as the Ur-Minox) together with the first pictures taken (preserved till this day) date back to August 1936. Zapp’s co-developers were micro-mechanic Hans Epner and optician Karl Indus, with financing coming from Richard Jürgens. The name Minox was thought of by Zapp’s close friend, the photographer Nikolai Nylander.
Minox was notable for its unprecedented miniature size and shape. The dimensions of the original model were a mere 75 x 27 x 15 millimetres, with the negative having a 6,5 x 9 mm format. The drawings and technical specifications of the original Tallinn Minox served as the basis for a number of patent applications in different countries.
Sadly, no industrial partners in Estonia were willing to produce the camera on a large scale. However, interest in manufacturing the novel machine was shown by the VEF factory in Riga, and the Tallinn Minox was used in late 1936 to create a slightly modified version, which became world-famous as the VEF-Minox, alternatively known as the Riga Minox. Immediately after having signed a contract with the Riga VEF factory to manufacture the camera, Zapp was telegraphed by the director of the AGFA Corporation, who forwarded an invitation to Zapp to come and visit Berlin in order to display his machine and begin negotiations for possible collaboration. The manufacture of the Minox camera at Riga’s VEF factory is the basis for the widely held misconception that Minox is a Latvian innovation.
Zapp moved to Riga in November 1936, where preparations were underway to commence industrial-scale manufacture at the VEF plant. The factory assembled an industrial team lead by engineer Eduards Berzinš, and hired Walter Zapp as the chief constructor. The trial batch was completed in the early autumn of 1937, with large-scale manufacturing beginning in April 1938 – a date which coincided with the 100th anniversary of the birth of photography. VEF filed patents for the miniature camera in 21 countries, including Estonia.
After the years spent in Riga between 1937 and 1941, Zapp worked in Germany, where he remained active in developing the Minox machine. The legendary miniature camera saw a second lease of life in 1948 when its manufacture was re-launched in Germany, and the iconic device has remained in manufacture ever since then, albeit in a number of different modifications.
In the 1950s Zapp moved to Switzerland, where he continued working as a freelance constructor. In 2001 Zapp was awarded The Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana IV class by the acting president of Estonia in recognition of his efforts in helping to put Estonia on the world map by virtue of his most celebrated innovation. In his acceptance speech, delivered in Estonian, Zapp recognized Estonia as his homeland. Zapp passed away in Switzerland on the 17th of July 2003. The Ülemiste City complex building located at Lõõtsa 6 is named after Walter Zapp.