The Victorian Era was an explosive time for inventions. It seems we couldn’t live without countless items that saw their beginnings in the 1800s. Just to name a few: the vacuum cleaner, the flushing toilet and the light bulb. Perhaps most important of all was the Victorian Era Hidden Camera. We ask you, who were they secretly photographing?
It was also the Golden Age of Gadgets, with thousands of patents filed every year. Some resulted in significant products, others paved the road to failure for hopeful inventors. Among the items that didn’t make it out of the 1800s: automatic hair brushing machines, electric socks, and improved pickle forks.
There were also scores of exceptional gadgets that didn’t quite catch on, but I wish they had. One of my favorites was this Watch Camera, manufactured by J. Lancaster & Son of Birmingham between 1886 and 1900.
It looked like an ordinary nickel-plated pocket watch case when closed, but when opened it contained a tiny camera. It was an exceptional design, until you tried to use it.
This self-erecting camera expanded six spring-loaded telescoping tubes when opened to form the bellows. It featured an internal meniscus lens and a simple rotary shutter in early models or a drop shutter in later ones.
Four tiny catches had to be released in order to remove the glass screen. The spy / user then had to fit a separate metal sensitized material holder for each exposure.
The original mans watch took exposures 2 x 1 1/2 inches and the ladies version, which made its debut in 1890, took exposures 1 1/4 x 1 inch.
Not surprisingly, the model sold badly. It got an “A” for appeal and looks, but an “F” for ease of use. It must have been difficult to look nonchalant while manipulating this device.
Only four of the smaller models for the ladies are believed to exist today. One sold for $36,000 at the Bonhams auction in 2007.
I’m fascinated by this little gadget. It leaves me wondering: who or what were they secretly photographing? What do you think?
Racing Nellie Bly
Victorian Secrets From Footnotes In History