When Freddie bought the Farm..

Ernst Leitz (left) and Oskar Barnack taken with the Ur-Leica about 1913

Toronto. … and Ernie bought the business.

In the early to mid 1800s, most of my ancestors were still in England in the villages around London. The horse was the main mode of transportation, aside from ships for those daring enough to cross the ocean. No telephones, no radio or TV, no computers. For the venturous well-to-do telescopes and microscopes served as a means of entertainment.

In Germany of the time many inventions took place. Optics was about to expand after the discovery of photography and a means of fixing an image. Near Frankfurt lived a bright young inventor called Carl Kellner. He devised a better eyepiece for the telescopes – an orthoscopic achromatic eyepiece. To market the new eyepieces, Kellner first had to make them, so in 1849, he founded an Optical Institute in the ancient town of Wetzlar.

His Optisches Institut manufactured lenses and telescopes complete with his eyepieces. He chose Wetzlar partly because it was close to him and partly because there was a good pool of technically qualified resources in the town. He quickly expanded to the manufacture of microscopes – another popular optical instrument in the mid 1800s.

At the time, photography was nearly 15 years old and the popular process was daguerreotypy. You had to be a masochist or a scientist to attempt the novel new art. In 1855, two important events occurred in Wetzlar, the small institute moved to 100% manufacture of microscopes, and Kellner died, taken away early in life by a small bacterial infection – tuberculosis.

His partner (employee?) Friedrich Christian Bethle (also called Belthle),carried on the business and even married Kellner’s widow. The other important change was to rename the company the Optisches Institut Kellner und Bethle. To differentiate the Institute’s product from others, Bethle focussed on the quality of manufacture of his instruments.

In 1865, Bethle searched for an engineer who could bring further discipline to the manufacture of microscopes. A young Ernst Leitz was hired. The changes Leitz implemented to tighten the manufacturing tolerances of the company’s microscopes impressed Bethle enough that he offered Leitz a partnership in the Institut. A few years later, in 1869, Bethle too died and the widow made Leitz the sole proprietor of the business. The  young engineer renamed the company the Optisches Institute von Ernst Leitz and worked hard to convert microscope production from assembly of each instrument individually to a mass production where tight tolerances allowed easily interchangeable parts.

The Leitz company evolved mainly making and selling microscopes. The mathematician Carl Metz was hired in 1887 to aid the move from empirical lens design to scientific design and the company expanded its product lines to other optical instruments. By the end of the 1800s, it branched out briefly to view cameras and lenses.

A miniature camera was designed by an employee, Oskar Barnack. His prototypes were made in 1913 and trialled as early as 1914 in NYC by the son of the founder, Ernst Leitz II. To keep its employees busy during a serious market decline in microscopes in  the early 1920s, Ernst Leitz II decided to make Barnack’s camera, renamed the Leica.

A trial batch of the miniature marvels was made in 1923/24 and offered to professional photographers. The photographers, used to much larger cameras and film plates large enough to contact print. looked down on the tiny camera whose inch by an inch and a half negative on a strip of 35mm cine film had to be enlarged considerably to be viewed.

In spite of this indifferent reaction, the camera was marketed at the Leipzig fair in early 1925. And as they say, “the rest is history”.


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