In the early 1930s, photography was still making the transition from large-format wet plate and film photography to the use of 35mm film, which had originally been developed for cinema. Though it’s called a “full frame” photo format today, in the 1930s 35mm was still thought of by many as a miniature format. Leica had pioneered the use of 35mm film in designs by the famous Oskar Barnack, with the first prototype (the ur-Leica, as enthusiast call it) having been made in 1913, but as in watchmaking, the race for greater and greater miniaturization was to inspire technical innovation for decades to come.
One of the most intriguing of the first generation of miniature and sub-miniature cameras was made by none other than Jaeger-LeCoultre, to a design by an Englishman, Noel Pemberton-Billing. Pemberton-Billing was a dynamic, if not especially savory character –active in politics, his views were virulently right wing and he had a penchant for bizarre conspiracy theories. He was also, however, a talented entrepreneur –he founded the firm that would go on to become Supermarine –and an early visionary advocate of air power.
The Compass Camera was one of his brainchildren; the design was the result of a bet Pemberton-Billing made that he could design a full-featured camera small enough to fit in a cigarette packet. The Compass design was very demanding to manufacture, and ultimately only a watchmaking firm was up to the task –and not just any firm; the design was eventually turned into reality by Jaeger-LeCoultre. Pemberton-Billing’s Compass Camera was first made by Le Coultre & Cie. in 1937.
We spotted this example –they have, of course, become extremely collectible –in Le Sentier, at the Jaeger-LeCoultre workshops. It’s a remarkable feat. The camera is only 2 3/4″ x 2 1/4″ x 1 1/4″ and is even today one of the smallest 35mm cameras ever made. It was also incredibly feature-rich for its size –sporting an f3.5 35mm lens, it had an exposure (extinction type) meter, rangefinder, ground glass focusing screen, spirit level, and a full set of filters all built in. The camera was originally designed for 35mm plates, but was later adapted for use with 35mm roll/cine film, and about 4000 were made, all told.
And it’s flat out beautiful –machined from solid aluminum, it’s a tiny jewel of a camera, still irresistibly lovely today, and a testimony to the manufacturing prowess of Jaeger-LeCoultre. It’s probably never going to happen but if they ever re-issued it as a modern film camera –or even a full-frame digital –we’d be all over it.