Wednesday, July 1, 2020


By Heinz Richter

It is often said that the Leica was the first 35mm camera.  However, that does require some qualification.  If we look at cameras at their prototype stage, the Leica was there almost from the very beginning.  But even the Ur-Leica, the original prototype, was not the first still camera that used 35mm film.

The credit to have established 35mm photography as we know it goes without a doubt to the Leica.  It was of a revolutionary design and practicality that eluded all the early 35mm cameras to the point that the only thing they had in common was the fact that they utilized 35mm motion picture film.

In their infancy motion picture cameras used a large variety of different films and types of perforation.  As a matter of fact, even photographic plates were used at one time.  These were carefully fastened in wooden frames, connected between two leather belts with grommets. which had the same function as the film perforation.  This was the invention of a Scottish gentleman.  The system worked, but it was very prone to failure and ultimately, while working in principle, was way ahead of its time.  This was at the middle of the 1800s, and we had to wait until the end of that century before practical motion pictures did reach the market.

Here the main credit goes to the Lumiere brothers in France and Thomas A. Edison in the US.  Both used perforated film material to assure proper handling of the film within the camera and projector.  However, while Edison used a small, enclosed viewing device, accessible to only a couple of people at a time, the Lumiere’s were the first to project film onto a large screen in a theater.

The 35mm film as we know it today came about upon the initiative of Edison and George Eastman of Kodak.  They both realized that the multitude of different film formats and perforation arrangements needed to be standardized.  They decided on a film with a width of 35mm and perforation on both sides of the film and an image of 18mm x 24mm.

These films proved to be of a rather good quality, far better than the glass plate material available at the time for still photography.  Thus it should come as no surprise that some people rightly figured that the same film should be useful for standard still photography as well.  All that was necessary was a suitable camera.

Just as the film was spun off from motion pictures, the cameras used the same path.  Virtually all of the early 35mm still cameras were essentially no more than motion picture cameras, converted for single frame operation.  As a matter of fact, some even used unperforated 35mm film to allow for a larger image size.  In those cases the film was made with a paper backing like conventional roll film.  The cameras that did use standard 35mm film initially all utilized the 18mm x 24mm image size or something quite similar.

This shows the great farsightedness of Oskar Barnack, the inventor of the Leica.  Even his prototype camera, the so called Ur-Leica did away with any of these conventions.  Rather than running the film vertically, like in all motion picture cameras, he decided to run the film horizontally.  This allowed for a twice as large 24mm x 36mm image size which was to become the standard of the industry.  In spite of the large image size, the camera was substantially smaller than any other camera utilizing 356mm film, which is another reason for the later success of the Leica.

Leica Prototype or Ur-Leica 1913

The world’s first 35mm camera design goes back to June 25, 1908 when a patent was issued to Dr. Alberto Lleo, a physician, Pablo Audouard, a photographer and Claudio Baradat, an engineer, all from Barcelona.  As far as it is known, the camera was never produced.

 Lleo 35mm Camera

The first 35mm camera with the 24 x 36mm format was designed by George P. Smith of Richmond Heights, Missouri in 1912.  But it never went beyond a handcrafted working prototype.  The camera never went into production.

Smith 35mm camera

Another early example of a 35mm camera was the Tourist Multiple from 1913.  It was made by the Herbert & Huesgen, New Ideas Mfg. Co. in the US and was the first commercially produced 35mm camera ever.  The camera used a 50 foot magazine for the film which allowed 750 half frame 18mm x 24mm exposures to be made.

Tourist Multiple 1913

The Tourist Multiple was soon followed by the Simplex in 1914, made by Multi Speed of New York.  It was the first 35mm camera manufactured and sold with the 24 x 36 mm format.  A lever allowed to close half of the film gate to switch to the 18 x 24mm half frame format, giving the camera a capacity of 800 exposures.

Simplex 1914

Needless to say, because of the great length of film, these cameras were rather large and heavy.  It wasn’t until 1915, when Levy Roth of Berlin introduced the  Minigraph that film length became a lot more manageable.  The Minigraph used film for 50 exposures in special cassettes.  It was the first 35mm camera to be sold in Germany although a patent  from 1913 shows another 35mm camera, the Stanislaus Kucharski. It was the first 35mm still camera patented in Germany.  But the camera was never marketed.  The Simplex camera too followed the motion picture camera design with its half frame format.

Minigraph 1915

Another camera with a 50 half frame capacity was the Le Phototank from 1922.  It was made by Victor Houssin in France.  Another camera from 1922 was the Sico, madeby Simons & Co in Switzerland.  The Sico took a different path by utilizing unperforated 35mm film.  This allowed for a much larger 30mm x 40mm negative size with a capacity of 25 exposures.

Le Phototank 1922

Sico 1922

These cameras were followed in 1923 by the Sept.  It was made in France by Debrie.  The camera was equipped with a spring driven motor which essentially made it a motion picture camera with a still frame feature.  Even though the camera itself was relatively compact, it was very heavy and not very comfortable to use.

 Sept 1923

1924 saw the introduction of the Krauss Eka camera.  It was made in Paris.  It was a relatively small, well designed camera, using unperforated 35mm film with an image size of 30 x 42 mm and 100 exposures.

Krauss Eka

The last pre-Leica 35mm camera was the Amourette, made by Jaques Singer from Vienna, Austria.  It too used unperforated 35mm film with an image size of 24 x 30mm with 50 exposures.  The camera was produced until 1930.


One of the early 35mm cameras produced in the US was the Ansco Memo made by the Agfa Anco Corporation.  There is conflicting information about when it was first made and marketed.  By design, the camera definitely precedes the Leica  The first instruction book shows a printing date of 1926 and first advertisements date back to 1927.  However the GAF Corporation, the successor to Agfa Ansco, stated in a letter to photo historian Dr. Joseph A Bailey that the first Memo was introduced in 1924.  That, however, seems to be a misprint which most likely meant to say developed, because there is little doubt that the camera was introduced in January of 1927.

Ansco Memo

One other camera deserves to be mentioned.  It is of an uncertain vintage, most likely made in Germany.  Apparently never went beyond the working prototype stage.  The camera somewhat resembles the Leica Reporter offering spool to spool film transport for 150 exposures of 24mm x 36mm negative size.  Considering its Schneider Xenon 45mm f/2 lens, this camera seems to be an early post Leica effort.  Unfortunately it too was relatively bulky because of its large film capacity.

German 35mm prototype

Thus it was not surprising that the Leica created quite a sensation when it was introduced at the Leipzig Spring Fair in 1925.  The camera was substantially smaller and lighter than anything seen before.  In addition the camera used the 24mm x 36mm full frame format which assured noticeably better results.  This was further enhanced by the outstanding performance of the 50mm f/3.5 Anastigmat lens, designed by Max Berek.

Leica 1 or Model A

The camera quickly gained acceptance by a wide range of photographers from professionals to amateurs.  Finally there was a camera that was easy to use and, because of its diminutive size, easy to carry.  It was this camera that put 35mm photography on the map, so to speak.  As a matter of fact, the Leica influenced photography to a much greater extent than any other camera before or after.  Photography as we know it today simply would not have happened without the Leica.

Summary of 35mm cameras up to the introduction of the Leica

From Camera and Images International

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  1. Seeing all these cameras makes me realize how farsighted Oskar Barnack was when he designed the Ur-Leica.

    1. These cameras also make it quite obvious why none of them survived after the introduction of the Leica in 1925. The Leica was lightyears ahead.

    2. These cameras obviously were designed by people that could not think outside the box. They were way too much influenced by existing movie cameras of the time.