By Heinz Richter
PLEASE NOTE: A revised, historically corrected and expanded version of this article can be found here:
The origins of Leica Camera AG go back to the early days of photography in general. The history of photography cannot be told without mentioning Ernst Leitz, Oskar Barnack and his invention of the Leica. No other camera has influenced photography as profoundly as the Leica. Here is how it all came to be:
I: E. Leitz and the Early History of Photography
Niepce, Daguerre, Fox Talbot; these names are inseparable from the history of photography. These men are figures of history, important, but remote; their discoveries were seminal, but primitive; their processes were anachronisms a century ago. Their technology was cumbersome and ill understood by present standards, and their picture taking apparatus bears only conceptual likeness to the modern camera.
And yet, one of the most respected photographic companies in the world today had its start in the days of the daguerreotype and the 20 x 24 inch wet-plate collodion camera. E. Leitz Wetzlar, or Leica, as they are now called, had its origins a scant ten years after the world saw its first daguerreotype.
In 1849 Ernst Leitz was living in Sulzburg in the Black Forest, a six year old schoolboy. Karl Kellner, a 23 year old physicist, founded in that year the “Optical Institute” in Wetzlar. At that time Wetzlar was a small town tucked away in a valley north of Frankfurt, out of the mainstream of commercial activity. It may be its serenity that lured poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Wetzlar to study and write. Even today the town retains its old world charm, a survivor of two world wars.
Carl Kellner shortly after he founded the Optical Institute
Kellner's home in Wetzlar
Kellner had excellent mechanical skills and a great interest in optics. His optical studies reached back as far as his school years and he continued them all through his apprenticeship years. He also obtained exclusive knowledge in mathematics.
The Optical Institute manufactured optics for microscopes and telescopes and from the beginning held a reputation as a leader in the field. It was, in fact, Kellner’s own invention of an orthoscopic eyepiece, a new achromatic lens combination, that allowed him to start his new business. Many scientists, especially astronomers, had for years looked for such an eyepiece and the success was obvious. The welcome his invention received is shown by the fact that the great astronomer, physicist and mathematician C. F. Gauss wrote a personal letter to Kellner to congratulate him on his new invention.
Kellner started out with 12 employees. Business was good; Kellner optics and the instruments quickly gained international reputation and in May, 1851, the first instrument was delivered abroad to Geneva.
The company flourished. Soon it added names like Bishoff, Liebig, Virchov, Leuckart and Koelloker to the customer list. In 1853 they started to produce more microscopes than telescopes, which so far had been the mainstay of the business. But its founder was not to see his company’s full glory. Kellner’s health failed and in 1855 he dies of one of the great perils of the time, tuberculosis. His partner, Charles F. Behltle, took over the company and shortly thereafter married Kellner’s widow. This assured the existence of the Wetzlar optical industry.
In 1865 Behltle took on a new partner. It was an inauspicious occasion. No one could have known at the time that it would be his new partner that would lead the Wetzlar company to the pinnacle of international fame and recognition. His name was Ernst Leitz.
Ernst Leitz I
Ernst Leitz I, photograph by Oskar Barnack
Born in 1843, in Sulzburg in the Black Forest, he grew up as the son of a school teacher. After completing his apprenticeship and journeyman’s service in precision engineering and optical workshops in Southern Germany, Switzerland and France, he came to Wetzlar in 1864.
The workshop’s success continued. The 1000th microscope left the shop in 1867. When Behltle died suddenly in 1869, Ernst Leitz became the sole proprietor of the company, and for a while kept the name Wetzlar Optical Institute; but in 1870 the comp[any introduced an achromatic microscope in a catalog that bore for the first time the name Ernst Leitz Company.
Work became more complex as a variety of new instruments was added to the line, such as a large horizontal photographic apparatus (a novel item in the still young field of photography) which appeared in the price list in 1865. Skill and experience alone were no longer sufficient, so in 1887 Leitz hired mathematician Carl Metz to develop new designs. This departure from the trial and error methods prevalent in optical design at the time soon assured Leitz’ leadership in the field.
1887 also saw the completion and sale of the 10,000th microscope. Much credit must be given to Ernst Leitz for turning a once small company in the space of a few years into an internationally renowned microscope manufacturing plant, employing some 4000 people, almost 35 times the original payroll.
These events were taking place during an extremely active period in the history of photography. Daguerre had died in 1851; his success lived on, though not without the genius of Englishman Henry Fox Talbot. Talbot’s negative process, Kalotype, laid the foundation for modern photography. The chemistry of the photographic process had progressed far beyond the first infant steps.
But emulsion sensitivity was still quite low and photographers the world over were looking fro faster lenses. The most widely used lens of the mid-century was a two element f/14 design manufactured by the French company of Chevalier. The Austrian Joseph Petzval was the first to design a multiple element portrait lens, ten times faster than the doublet Chevalier. The Petzval lens was a five element f/3.6 design with two cemented groups; the lens was manufactured by Voigtländer. Petzval also designed a “landscape” lens which had an unusually wide angle of coverage for the time.
The next great step forward in the development of modern lenses was made by the company of Karl August von Steinheil. The famous Aplanat lenses led to the Portrait-Aplanat, remarkable in its day for its speed of f/2.4. Lens speed and sophistication of design had progressed rapidly in just a few years.
In 1878 young George Eastman began producing photographic emulsions, but the start of one of the largest photographic companies was slow. Eastman had to fight for his success in a number of court battles, one of which involved the principle of rollfilm In 1887 Hannibal Goodwin, a minister, patented a celluloid backed photographic rollfilm. Eastman tried to get a patent for a similar film in 1892, only to learn that Goodwin’s patent was five years older. A bitter court battle lasted eleven years; the patent right finally were given to Goodwin, but by that time his health had deteriorated sharply and he assigned his rights to the Ansco Company. Another court battle started which was not decided until March, 1914. Eastman Kodak Company ended up paying millions of restitution.
Another landmark of the period was the founding of the Aktiengesellschaft Für Anilinfabrikation, AGFA, once the largest photographic manufacturer after Kodak. (It may be of interest to note that one of the company’s founders was Dr. Mendessohn-Bartholdy, a son of the great composer Felix Mendelssohn.) Following an initial involvement in the production of various chemicals, AGFA turned to photographic developers. In 1891, after the unsuccessful US marketing of their Eikogen developer, the company produced an improved version, the now famous Rodinal™, which became the oldest, continuously marketed photographic product on the market.
II: Young Barnack
Oskar Barnack was born November 1, 1879, the son of a teacher in Lynow, a small town in the Mark Brandenburg, close to Berlin. Shortly after Oskar’s birth his father moved his family to Lichterfelde, a suburb of Berlin and it is there that young Oskar would go to school.
One of Barnack’s early goals was to become a landscape painter. His father opposed the idea, brushing it off as a poor man’s trade, so young Oskar was apprenticed to Master Lampe. Lampe was engaged in what was apparently considered a much more sensible trade, the manufacture of tellurians, the small clockwork driven models of the planets and the solar system. Barnack enjoyed his work with these precise mechanical devices; through his work he developed an interest in astronomy and decided to become an astronomer.
He worked as hard as possible, his newfound interest driving him through his three years of apprenticeship. He accepted each new task as a challenge and an opportunity for greater knowledge. No task seemed to be too difficult for him as he perfected his mechanical skills and after 2 ½ years Master Lampe released him from his learning period, telling him he had nothing left to teach him.
At approximately this time the Leitz Company’s catalog was issued for the first time without reference to its founder C. Kellner. It showed a considerably expanded line of equipment and featured such “exotics” as a projection apparatus illuminated by a paraffin lamp. By 1899 Oskar Barnack had committed himself to a career as a master mechanic. That year was also the 50th anniversary of the Ernst Leitz Company and that year the catalog showed an apparatus for counting blood corpuscles, a stereoscopic microscope and an arc lamp for microscopic projection.
After leaving Lampe, Barnack made the customary travels through Europe as a journeyman. One of his travels brought him to a small town in Saxony, where he began work for a manufacturer of calculating machines. The company’s owner was not fond of people from the big city of Berlin and for a while he treated Barnack with disdain. On one of Barnack’s first days at work his employer gave his new employee a calculator to disassemble for cleaning and left for a short walk downtown. Barnack found the machine badly in need of an overhaul. Though he had never worked on such a mechanism, he fully disassembled the immense number of gears, levers and springs, cleaned and reduplicated them and reassembled the machine. The owner, upon his return, found the calculator operating as if it had just been manufactured. All was in perfect order. Barnack received an immediate raise.
In 1902 Barnack traveled to Jena, a town in southeastern Germany near Austerlitz, where Napoleon had decisively defeated the Prussians, Austrians and Russians in the Dreikaiser (Three Emperor) Battle nearly a hundred years before (1805). There he joined the Zeiss Optical Works and it was there where he first developed an interest in photography.
He enjoyed hikes in the countryside, often spending time in the Thuringian Forest. He frequently took along a 5 x 7 plate camera and developed some skills as a photographer. But since he had never been a very strong person, he soon began wondering about an alternative to carrying the heavy camera equipment along all the time. The obvious choice was a smaller negative and as early as 1905 he began experimenting with a camera specially converted to take fifteen or twenty smaller negatives an a single 5 x 7 glass plate. The grain structure of the film materials of the day proved too coarse for such an approach and no useable enlargements resulted. He gave up the idea.
Barnack’s health began to give him problems and after receiving a small inheritance, he decided to travel south to Tyrol, hoping the climate would rid him of asthma and chronic colds. He remained near Bozen for a few months, enjoying the fresh air and the countryside. With renewed vigor he traveled to Vienna, but the leisurely pace in Vienna proved uncomfortable for the conscientious Prussian and he soon returned to Master Lampe in Berlin. Lampe, thrilled at Barnack’s return and contemplating retirement, offered Barnack his business at no cost. Barnack turned the offer down.
After a brief brush with the manufacture of mechanical pencils in 1909, Barnack returned to Jena and the opto-mechanical industry, taking a job at the Jena glass works. There he befriended Emil Mechau, who had started work on a new type of movie projector that used a rotating prism instead of the mechanical cam-claw arrangement to freeze the frames on the screen. Mechau thought his prism system to be superior, since with a compensating prism one frame would blend into the next, not unlike a dissolve projector. His superiors in Jena, however, did not think the project worthwhile to pursue and Mechau was forced to set aside its development. Discouraged, he left Jena. He took his idea to Leitz in Wetzlar and in 1910 he joined the company with a guarantee he could continue to develop his projection system. Barnack, always looking for new challenges, left Jena the same year and joined the IKA camera factory in Dresden. He stayed in Dresden only two months and then returned to Jena.
III: Barnack in Wetzlar
In 1910 it became apparent that Leitz was in need of a master machinist in the microscope research department. Emil Mechau, recently arrived from Jena, thought immediately of his friend Oskar Barnack and suggested him to the Leitz management. Leitz contacted Barnack on short order, but he was hesitant and his reply very much illustrates his character. Though he seemed dissatisfied with his work in Jena and being interested in the Wetzlar position, he answered, “Surely it is not desirable for a company to hire a young employee who still has to familiarize himself with the new tasks and whose health compels him to take a leave of absence of one or two months every year, not to mention the fact that the costs of such cures would be too high for me as a private person.” The answer impressed Ernst Leitz and he decided to hire him in spite of his disclaimers. His assurances prevailed and on January 1, 1911, Barnack arrived in Wetzlar.
Barnacks original letter, declining the job offer from Leitz
He was soon befriended by Leitz who recognized the affinities between Barnack’s personality and his own. Leitz helped Barnack to locate and purchase a small house, located such that it was protected from the harsh east winds, with a glass enclosed porch and Barnack’s beloved garden. Barnack was so susceptible to chills that it had become common practice for him to stay home after a hair cut to avoid a cold. Leitz thought the sheltered house and glass enclosed porch might help to keep his employee’s health from deteriorating any more than necessary.
As a master machinist one of Barnack’s first tasks was to design diamond lathes for the lens polishing department. Soon he started work on an all aluminum movie camera, a radical departure from the heavy wooden models of the time. It would become the first all metal motion picture camera ever. This venture into movie cameras resulted from the company’s need for films to test Emil Mechau’s projectors. There was apparently no way to buy or rent films in Germany at the time, nor did Leitz see fit to buy a camera from another company.
Barnack's motion picture camera
Barnack himself made a number of movies with his new device and samples of his work still exist. Members of the LHSA (Leica Historical Society of America) had the pleasure to view several of these movies during their annual meeting in Minneapolis in 1980. Barnack displayed considerable skill as a motion picture camera man and for awhile seriously thought of changing careers again.
Barnack using his motion picture camera
One of the problems of shooting movie film at the time was determining proper exposure. Photoelectric meters were not yet available and the camera operator always ran the risk of losing the whole 200 foot roll to improper lens settings. Barnack decided to build a small exposure testing device that would use short sections of movie stock. With it he would expose film by the common method of the time - take a good guess – and expose his movie identically. Afterwards, the test exposures were processed and any exposure problems were compensated for by evaluating the test and adjusting the development of the movie film accordingly.
Barnack’s “lightmeter” was equipped with a Zeiss Kino Tessar lens and had a fixed exposure time of 1/40 second, the common motion picture shutter speed. The quality of the results surprised him; in the motion picture film he had finally found a fine enough grain structure to yield good enlargements and he recalled his old idea of making a small negative camera. He decided to give the problem a good try and, in 1913, he finished his first real still camera.
To get the most from the small 35 mm film he chose to double the size of the standard motion picture frame; in so doing he created the modern 35 mm still camera format (or full frame format). The camera had a focal plane shutter with a fixed slit width of 40 mm. Shutter speeds were controlled by variable spring tension. The first lens was the same Zeiss Kino Tessar he had used in the exposure testing camera, but it proved to have unsatisfactory coverage for Barnack’s full frame format. The next lens tried was a 64 mm Leitz Macro Summar, but it too was unable to satisfy Barnack’s requirements. It was Max Berek, Leitz’ chief lens designer who finally solved the problem. The challenge was to design a lens equal to or better than the best the market could then offer. He designed the Leitz 50 mm f/3.5 Anastigmat, later renamed the Elmax. It was the five element forerunner of the world famous Elmar.
It is important to note that the Barnack prototype 35 mm camera was not the same as the exposure testing camera built quite some time prior as is commonly assumed. The exposure testing camera had a fixed 1/40 sec. exposure time and used the common half frame format of 18 x 24 mm of the time. However, it gave the impetus for Barnack to build the Ur Leica, which was to become the “grandfather” of the famous line of Leica rangefinder cameras.
Prototype I: The Ur-Leica
Thus the first Leica camera came into existence. Many improvements were to come later, but most of the features of the production cameras were already present in that unnamed experimental camera. It wasn’t until much later that it was called the Ur Leica. The camera did not yet have a self capping focal plane shutter. To avoid exposure during winding, a small disc, directly attached to the lens, had to be swung into place to make the camera light tight. But unlike any camera before, this was an entirely new design, one that for the first time combined film transport and shutter cocking mechanisms and avoided the possibility of accidental double exposure. Since the camera utilized the relatively inexpensive motion picture film, twelve pictures now could be made for the price of a single 5 x 7 plate and 40 exposures could be made in a single loading. The camera laid the foundation for an entirely new kind of photography and influenced the 35 mm camera deign for years to come. Only in recent years has the basic focal plane shutter design, as used in principle in the Ur Leica, been replaced; it is still used in various forms by most camera makers.
Initially, film had to be loaded into the camera in the dark, something that Barnack soon recognized as a problem. To overcome this problem, he designed a reloadable cassette that could be inserted into the camera. To make room for the cassette it was necessary to shorten the roll of film from the initial 40 exposures to 36. This maximum of 36 exposures per roll has never been changed and the daylight loading film cassette has become universal. Even the comparatively insignificant accessory shoe, added by Barnack to the Ur Leica to accommodate a viewfinder, has kept its dimensions through all the years since it was built onto the Ur Leica. Perfection, as we all know, cannot be improved upon.
The following is Oskar Barnack’s own description (c. 1931) of the cameras development:
The following is Oskar Barnack’s own description (c. 1931) of the cameras development:
I have often been asked, “How did the Leica really come to be?” Whether it was particularly difficult, whether it took a long time, why I arrived at the particular format of 24 x 36 mm, further, what actually happens when something is invented, and many other questions. The development of the Leica system caused me such a chronic shortage of time that I was happy to take care of at least the immediate problems and tasks as best I could.
For the time being, it did not occur to me to entertain historical reflections. Perhaps that might happen when more time has passed. But these considerations did not take Curt Emmermann into account; he proved to me quite clearly that it was my duty to say something in the new “Leica:” magazine (published by Emmermann), even if it was only in the form of an apology. This is indeed correct: I really have no apologies for the Leica. When I think of the many bothers and vexations experienced by otherwise accomplished photo fans with this peculiar camera and how allsorts of newfangled gadgets made life difficult for my dear contemporaries, such as the perforated motion picture film, which always tore right away (if you loaded it incorrectly), a camera that nobody could understand, then those confounded cassettes designed especially to irritate my fellow men, when I think of all that, I feel like a real mischief maker.
Whereas up to now everything had been nicely solved and arranged with those solid plates and those wonderful roll films. All that worked very smoothly. One should have left well enough alone. A friendly acquaintance, who had some bad results through no fault of his own, even wanted to throw the Leica at my head.
My only consolidation is that the unfortunate one, when he happened to have some bad luck, was not automatically in danger of his life, as could easily be the case in an automobile or an airplane, when the steering mechanism goes on strike. I also lived in the hope that perhaps these mistakes might be followed by know how, which turned out to be the case quite often. Fourteen days later the bomb thrower mentioned above was quite pleased, as he informed me in a letter that he really did not mean it so seriously.
The Leica happens to be a rather sensitive creature. A French acquaintance, who prized his Leica very much, described it as ‘capricieuse comme une jolie femme.’ With superficial or even incorrect handling it promptly exerts passive resistance and if you try to force it, you might as well pack up. However, this is a minority because the majority does not consider the instruction booklet entirely superfluous. This conclusion is based on eager testimonials, unsolicited and often the result of enthusiasm.
There were cases where 100,000 exposures were made in the very same Leica in one year, without any trouble whatever! A Leica owner like that is a master of his craft, and the instrument performs smoothly in his hands. Here imitation is recommended.
How did I happen to design the Leica? To answer this question, I really have to go back 2 ½ decades. It was around 1905. At that time I assiduously made photographs with my (5 x 7) plate ‘crate’ with 6 double plate holders and a leather container that resembled a sample case. That was quite a lot of baggage to carry up the slopes of the mountains. As I was already bothered somewhat by asthma, the thought must have occurred to me: Isn’t there an easier way? In any case, I still remember very clearly how I experimented with (5 x 7) plates, trying to divide them into small individual pictures by using a lens with a short focal length in a special fixture , resulting in rows of 15 to 20 pictures. But the attempt was a complete failure. Because of the coarse grain of the plates,
One of Barnack's pictures of the Wetzlar Cathedral
the enlargements were not exactly appealing. For a while, I let the entire matter rest, but the realization ‘Small negative, large picture’ for a still camera had been born.
In the meantime, a change took place in my activities, as I joined the Ernst Leitz Optical Works in Wetzlar. Here my responsibilities included, among other things, motion picture technology. I designed my first motion picture camera in 1912 and pretty soon I was headed in the right direction because of the fine grain of motion picture film. A postcard size enlargement from a motion picture frame was quite acceptable.
But meanwhile I had become more demanding. The postcard and even more so the size might be nice souvenir pictures, but the actual , real picture emerges only at 5 x 7 or better yet at 8 x 10. Even these sizes appear quite small once one has seen pictures 20 inches wide. It is really true that, the larger the picture, the more plastic and realistic its effect.
For that purpose the motion picture frame was too small. Since regular film unfortunately was not permitted to become wider because of the wonderful invention of standardization, I had to employ as much feasible length in order to make optimum use of it. Right off, I tried to double the frame width and what do you know, it worked out very well; that is, 24 mm wide and 36 mm long. That is how the Leica format came to be. In other words, it was not the product of prolonged pondering, as was the case later with other camera parts that frequently seem quite insignificant. To this day, I still consider the proportion of 2 by 3 as the most attractive one.
Now the actual designing of the Leica began. I gave a free reign to my yen for the unusual and the novel. I was not restricted by any particular assignment or direction, as would be the case in a modern design department; rather it was a private hobby. Because I was not inhibited by customary guidelines and because I used hardly anything that was heretofore considered essential for a good photographic camera, the result was this novel type of camera. Already then it was basically as it is still seen today. The difference was that the first model did not have a focal plane shutter with variable slit width, it had a fixed slit 4 cm wide and several spring tensions and it did not yet have daylight loading cassettes. But it already had all the other features. Particularly the obligatory coupling of film and shutter advance.
Probably the best know photograph by Oskar Barnack
I used that model for many years and I still have many pictures from those days. However, further refinement of the camera was temporarily halted by the outbreak of World War I. More important things had to be worked on. But extremely valuable experience was gained with the many pictures taken during the war years, so that, when the question of actual manufacture was later brought up, I was able to come up with a production model in a relatively short time.
One of Barnack's pictures made during the mobilization for WWI
Next, the following things had to be designed: a rangefinder for close-up pictures, an indispensable requirement for a camera without ground glass; then the self capping focal plane shutter with adjustable slit width that was absolutely reliable and finally daylight loading by means of cassettes. I also built the viewfinder at that time. After these things had been satisfactorily solved, as I believe they were, only one major item remained to be settled and that was a suitable lens. This naturally would have to be of superior quality, because at least a tenfold linear enlargement was required.
This is where the work of Professor Dr. M. A. Berek comes in. He succeeded in designing a 50 mm f/3.5 anastigmat lens which was at least equal to the very best lenses of its type. This step had a very significant effect in getting the whole concept of a small camera accepted. Very slowly at first, then gradually faster, but with remarkable even acceleration from year to year. Now 60,000 Leica cameras have been built. That’s what is called healthy evolution.
Today, six years later, one might well say that the existence of a good miniature camera has been definitely justified. Small cameras that once existed about 16 to 18 years ago, like the “Minigraph,” undoubtedly did not survive because their negative size (18 x 24 mm) was too small and their external dimensions much too large. A miniature camera just had to be small and to make 500 exposures on a single film, as in the “Minigraph,” is not everyone’s cup of tea. Thirty-six exposures with the Leica are already plenty, and on the other hand, this is occasionally desirable.
The future of the miniature camera is substantiated by the new models of the most varied types that are now constantly appearing on the photo market. I do not consider them as competition, quite the opposite, they all support the new concept of “Small Negative, Large Picture.” Those who want to draw a final conclusion from the wealth of their long experience with all sorts of camera types will probably change over to the Leica.
That is quite understandable. It is simply the most versatile and the most universally applicable camera. All the accessories and objects that have been added in the course of time fit the Leica perfectly and they form the complete range of instruments that made the now so-called Leica system a reality. Now the door is open to master any photographic task by means of appropriate accessories from photographs of the most distant subjects, as in astronomy, to close-up pictures with supplementary lenses, proceeding further to even shorter subject distances to a scale of 1 to 1, that is, actual size, thus branching the gap to photomicrography.
That is the Leica and what it can do.
(From “Viewfinder,” Vol. II, No. 4: used by permission)
Barnack himself demonstrated an eye for the picturesque, but with the Leica in hand he also showed some skill as a photoreporter. His pictures of the mobilization for World War I represent some of the first spontaneous photo reportage in history. He also photographed during the Wetzlar flood in 1920.
A Barnack photograph of the 1920 Wetzlar flood
The outbreak of World War I ended development of “Barnack’s camera,” as it was called. Barnack stayed in Wetzlar during the war; the German forces refused him because his health was so poor. Very little is known about the plant’s activities during the war years, but it is safe to assume that it was occupied with military contracts.
Though he was unable to continue work on the camera, Barnack photographed with the prototype throughout the war years. When food began to run short he used photographs for barter, photographing farmers and farm buildings in return for eggs and butter.
By the end of the war Barnack was very much in need of a vacation. Ernst Leitz, aware that his friend’s health was failing, invited him along on a trip to the Black Forest. The camera accompanied them, of course. The trip provided a photographic opportunity that has left us a large stock of negatives from that earliest Leica, including a number of pictures of Leitz and of Barnack himself.
Ernst Leitz I (left) and Barnack vacationing in the Black Forest
There were two prototypes which Barnack had made before the war. The first one was presented by Barnack to Ernst Leitz II. It was the first of Barnack’s cameras to reach the United States, accompanying its owner on a voyage in the spring of 1914. Leitz photographed during the trip on the ship Das Vaterland (the Fatherland) and in the streets of Manhattan; but he also took advantage of the trip to file patents on the new camera and the first US patent was granted in that year. The history of this camera is quite interesting. The subject has been well researched by Gianni Rogliatti, who gave the following account:
This second prototype, identical to the Ur Leica and built presumably at the same time, was the one used by Barnack and remained in the hands of his family when he died. For some unknown reason it was given into the custody of the Deutsches Museum in Munich during World War II. After the war the camera was returned to the son of Oscar Barnack who was living in Munich and operating a grocery store. Barnack’s son later sold the camera and it was resold at an auction. All of this happened several years ago and Barnack’s son subsequently died causing every trace of the camera to be lost.
(from “Viewfinder,” Vol. 12, No. 1; used by permission)
In 1914, when Count von Zeppelin landed one of his dirigibles in nearby Giessen, Barnack immediately set out to see it and after some talk convinced the Count to take him up on one of the voyages. In so doing he made the first ever aerial photo with a 35 mm camera.
The year 1913 saw one other major breakthrough at the Leitz plant. During that year the company developed the first binocular microscopic eyepiece, a feature so common on the modern microscope that little thought is given to it anymore.
After the war, Barnack made a third prototype, incorporating a number of improvements and changes. The shutter was still not the self capping type, yet Barnack had left off the small lens covering disk, thinking it sufficient to press the lens against the chest during film winding to avoid accidental exposure.
Leica Prototype 3
Ernst Leitz II took over the company in 1920 following the death of his father. At this time Emil Mechau had refined his projector and the company began production of the Model 3 Cine Projector at a new plant in Rastatt.
Barnack further refined his camera, at last incorporating the self capping shutter and in 1923 the company decided to try a pilot run of 30 or 31` cameras (the exact number has never been conclusively determined), the so called Nullserie preproduction model, equipped with Max Berek’s 50 mm f/3.5 lens.
Ernst Leitz II
The cameras were distributed to professional photographers for evaluation and drew a mixed response. Most were skeptical of the new miniature format, but many acknowledged that it could produce astonishingly good enlargements and that it had great potential.
Leica Nullserie Preproduction model
The advances of the early years occurred during Germany’s postwar depression. Unemployment was widespread. Money had virtually no value; a loaf of bread costing a million marks or more was not unusual. Many cities printed their own money. When paper ran out they printed it on leather and even wood. Use of the barter system reached an all time high.
Lower sales threatened Leitz with layoffs. Ernst Leitz II despised the possibility of such a thing and in his father’s tradition believed he owed employment to his workers, even if it meant a loss for the company. Looking for new, marketable products, he suggested Barnack’s camera to his board of directors. They opposed it; the risks were too high, it was too drastic a departure from the usual trade of a microscope manufacturer, the times were too harsh. But it was to overcome the harshness of the depression that Leitz finally proclaimed, “Barnacks Kamera wird gebaut (Barnack’s camera will be built).”
At that time, in 1924, Ernst Leitz III had passed his high school examination, the Abitur, and before entering university had come to the Leitz company as an apprentice instrument mechanic and toolmaker. The day of his father’s decision he called the longest day of his life; it was a fateful day for the Leitz company and for photography in general.
Production started late in 1924 and by the time the camera was introduced to the public at the Leipzig Spring fair in 1925, at least 800 cameras had been completed. The Leica caused quite a sensation. Many professional rejected it, skeptical of its small size and subsequent performance capabilities. The general public, on the other hand, was very much in favor of it; finally there was a camera small enough to be taken anywhere.
The Leica, in fact, was soon taken on the Zeppelin, on expeditions to the North pole and to Africa. It filled the need for a camera that was small and that could be used with ease under almost any lighting conditions, and it began to gain acceptance from professional photographers.
Still looking to improve the camera, Barnack’s thoughts turned to a rangefinder. He called some of his associates into his office and told them about the idea, then put a ruler across the top of a Model A Leica from the rewind knob to the winding knob. He told them neither the size nor the pleasing appearance of the camera could be changed and that the rangefinder had to fit in the space below the ruler. His words were:
“Gentlemen, the rangefinder will have to fit within the dimensions of the present size of the camera, it will have to be of such a design that it will function with all the lenses and it must be possible to incorporate it into cameras that were built in the past.”
No small order, but the rangefinder materialized and the Leica II and Barnack’s farsightedness prevailed. The new camera was called Autofocal Camera. The year was 1932.
Two photographs of Barnack at his workbench in the Leitz factory
Improvements had been occurring all along. The first interchangeable lenses had appeard in 1930. Lens production had been enhanced after 1927 when Ernst Leitz III, returning from university studies under Max Planck, began to develop a method of machining lenses with the aid of diamond tools.
In 1932 Leitz introduced the Leica Reporter which allowed the photographer to make 250 24x36 negatives before changing film. Even an electric motor was designed for this model. Barnack’s improvements were continuous and comprehensive. He was always willing to listen to new ideas. He would never make any direct comments on any of these, but later one could often notice comments about the items like “totally overexposed,” or “way underexposed” in the margins of his notes. Even though not all the improvements on the Leica were not entirely his own ideas, until his death he made the decisions on what was to be changed and what not. Recent luxury features, like auto winders, 250 exposure backs, remote releases and motor drives, just about all were at one time or another tried by Barnack. And while one of today’s camera manufacturers once claimed that every SLR has a little bit of their SLR in it, one can safely say that in some way, every 35mm camera of recent times had a bit of Oskar Barnack’s genius in it. As a matter of fact, even the current digital Leica M must be considered to be a direct descendant of Barnack’s ingenious prototype Ur-Leica.
Until his very last days Barnack’s time was totally consumed by the Leica. Even when his poor health would confine him to bed, he mostly occupied himself with the camera and when he returned to work he would always bring along sketches of new ideas.
Design sketch signed by Barnack
This design sketch, signed by Barnack, was scanned from the original. It has the same size of the original and an accurate rendering of the yellowed color it has now.
Barnack designed shutter tensioning device, in effect a miniature torque wrench
His private life was very quiet, and by himself he was a rather unassuming person. He was also a very accomplished chess player. His character was not at all influenced by the great success of his camera.
In summer of 1935 he became seriously ill. The diagnosis confirmed pernicious anemia. Recovery was slow, but on January 2, 1936, he was able to celebrate his 25th anniversary with the company. A few days later pneumonia forced him back to bed. His health deteriorated rapidly and on the morning of January 16, 1936 Oskar Barnack died. His legacy, the Leica, remained, and long after Barnack’s death, his invention continued to change photography an nothing else before or after has done.
For more information on the Ur-Leica go to:
IS THIS THE OTHER UR-LEICA?
Other articles with pictures of and by Oscar Barnack
This article was written, based on the published information regarding the development of the Leica. Further research has shown that this generally accepted and published information contains several mistakes. These are pointed out and corrected in the following article:
THE REVISED HISTORY OF THE LEICA
For more information on the Ur-Leica go to:
IS THIS THE OTHER UR-LEICA?
Other articles with pictures of and by Oscar Barnack
THE UR-LEICA Part Two