Until the 1930s, many miniature/spy cameras were beatiful and amazing gadgets at the pinnacle of technological achievement. Some of them were even small enough to fit in the palm of your hand but so finely made that they could produce high-quality photographs. And even more impressive was the fact that they included a large number of features (like the Jaeger LeCoultre Compass camera) in such a tiny amount of space. Accessories which were normally separate from the body of the camera – like a right angle finder, range finder, spirit level and filters – were all integrated into the design.
Here is a list of some of the most impressive and original designs of cameras for spies and other lovers of inconspicuous photography.
The Jaeger LeCoultre Compass camera was designed by English inventor and Member of Parliament Noel Pemberton Billings. It was notably much smaller than comparable cameras of its day, but not prohibitively expensive: only £30 when the product was launched in 1937. But just around 4,000 units were sold, making it extremely rare today. These days, a Compass can fetch around $2000.
The Compass was hailed as a scientific approach to photographic technique, but just as easy to use as a clock. It was meant to be used with glass plates, but an attachment could be purchased that would make it possible to use 35mm roll film (without the customary cassettes). It came with a standard tripod and cable release, which understandably weren’t included in the camera’s body.
Other spy cameras (vintage collection)
This is the famous “Brownie” camera from Kodak. The Brownie popularized low-cost photography and introduced the concept of the snapshot (first model dates from 1900)
A later model (art deco style from the Thirties):
Scovill Antique Oak Detective Camera:
(images credit: Ritzcam.com)
No serious antique mini camera collection could be complete without the Coronet Midget Camera which was made in England in 1935:
Mec-16 in gold finish:
For the utmost in rare camera items, check out this miniature camera, used by Japan Police in the Fifties: (source RitzCam.com)
Not that rare, but pretty spiffy is another vintage Japanese product:
Hit Type Crystar camera (1956 model)
It had many variations, made by little-known companies.
If you doubt that a camera like this could take “real” pictures, take a look at the shots here