The first Leica with built-in flash synch was the Leica IIIf. That, however, does not mean that flash photography was impossible before that. Leitz, as well as some other manufacturers used to make add-on flash synch devices for Leicas prior to the IIIf. However, these would only function with flash bulbs or electronic flash. What about flash photography prior to flash bulbs?
Enter flash powder. This was one of the earliest means to add a bright, instant light source to photography. In 1887, Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke mixed fine magnesium powder with potassium chlorate to produce Blitzlicht. This was the first ever widely used flash powder. Blitzlicht gave the photographers the ability to produce instant photographs at night at a very high shutter speed. This caused quite an excitement in the photography world.
Being the explosive that it is, flash powder accidents were obviously inevitable. Simply grinding the components was dangerous enough, and a number of photographers died while either preparing the flash powder or setting it off.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the flash powder formula was refined and improvements were made to make the process simpler and safer. The flashes now lasted for 10 ms only, so subjects no longer closed their eyes during the exposure which helped portrait photography.
Most “flash attachments” for flash powder were nothing more than hand held devices that required to be “loaded” with a small amount of the flash powder which then would be triggered with a flint, not unlike the flints used to light old-style fuel powered cigarette lighters.
A much more convenient way was offered by the Existence Blitz Kapsel (Existence Flash Capsule). They consisted of cartridges filled with a fixed amount of flash powder which in turn were triggered by a small primer as used for gun bullets. The cartridges were inserted into a hand-held device with a trigger pin. When released, the trigger pin would strike the primer which then ignited the flash powder cartridge.
The Existence Blitz Kapel was offered in two different sizes, a große (large) and a kleine (small) one. The Große Existence Blitz Kapsel was good for distances of 18 to 30 meters (60 to 100 feet) at f/4.5 for films with a sensitivity of 23 degree Scheiner (ASA/ISO 16). The Kleine Existence Blitz Kapsel had a range of 9 to 15 meters (30 to 50 feet) at the same aperture and film speed. Those figure indicate a considerable brightness.
That allowed the company to use the slogan “Ob es Nacht ist, stürmt oder schneit, Existence gibt Sonne jederzeit.” (Whether night, storm or snow, Existence offers sun anytime) Not a bad start for flash photography, yet a long ways from the convenience of built-in flash.
Existence flash capsules
For information on the Leitz VACU early external flash synch go to: http://gmpphoto.blogspot.com/2012/03/leitz-vacu.html