First Leica


Small town somewhere in Germany. Secure location undisclosed. Two matching keys open a safe deposit box. The drawer is placed on a clean, white table. A black velour cover reveals a small wooden case. We put on white gloves. Dr. Rudi Spiller, CEO of Leica Camera (below), carefully removes the first Leica ever made: the original 1913-1914 Oskar Barnack prototype 35mm still format camera, worth around 4 million dollars. No wonder it’s in a vault.

It was the first small, portable, 35mm still format camera. Oskar Barnack was head of microscope R&D at Ernst Leitz Optical Works in Wetzlar. In his spare time, beginning 1911, he began work on a prototype still camera for cinematographers to test exposures using existing 35mm motion picture film. “Aha,” he must have said. “This is a lot easier to use than schlepping around a big, heavy view camera. The standard 35mm motion picture negative is 18 x 24mm, and the film travels vertically. But, turn the camera on its side, and we can get a larger 24 x 36 mm negative. And, instead of contact-printing huge view camera negatives, we can use a projector to make larger prints. Oskar shot lots of stills with his prototype camera. Here’s one of the first, taken in Wetzlar’s Eisenmarkt (Iron Market):

And here’s what it looks like today:

The first Leica A cameras went into production in 1925. The rest, as they say, is history.

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