Norwegian innovator Carl Størmer was possibly the first stalker to use a hidden camera in the name of love. He was definitely the first paparazzo of Norway in the 1890s. At a time when photographs were typically stiffly- posed, no-smile affairs, there were some people pushing the envelope, like Nikola Tesla and his cohorts with their version of selfies and Spelterini with his aerial photography over the Alps. When it came to capturing the essence of subjects, Stormer ruled the streets, using a Victorian Era Spy Camera to capture candid expressions. He was also a brilliant mathematician and astrophysicist who later incorporated photography into his scientific work.
In 1893, Størmer was 19 years old and studying mathematics at the Royal Frederick University, now University of Oslo. He purchased his C.P. Stirn Concealed Vest Spy Camera that was also known as a Detective Camera.
Sydney Chapman wrote an article on Carl Størmer in “Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society” in 1958. In it, he tells how Størmer first became involved with photography.
“When he was a young man at Oslo University he fell in love with a lady whom he did not know and with whom he was too bashful to become acquainted. Wishing at least to have a picture of her, he decided that this was possible only by taking a photograph of her himself, without her knowing. So he procured a small camera that could be concealed under his coat, the exposure being made through his buttonhole. He succeeded in this difficult task. The love affair came to nothing; later the lady left Oslo for America and married. Years later she returned to Oslo. By this time he was famous. Meeting her, he told her of the incident.” (p. 273)
Størmer became fascinated with photography despite his failed brush with romance. In 1942 he told the Hallvard Journal:
“It was a round flat canister hidden under the vest with the lens sticking out through a buttonhole…Under my clothes I had a string down through a hole in my trouser pocket, and when I pulled the string the camera took a photo…I strolled down Carl Johan (street), found me a victim, greeted, got a gentle smile and pulled. Six images at a time and then I went home to switch the plate.”
Stormer produced more than 500 photographs. Many of his subjects appear quite friendly, tipping their hats and smiling. Others appear somewhat suspicious. Can you imagine a man approaching you, tugging at something in his pants pocket? A few were angered when they realized they were being photographed.
Undaunted, Størmer applied his new secret photographic skills to obtain pictures of many of the celebrities of Oslo, including Henrik Ibsen. At nearly 70, he mounted an exhibition of his early photographs in Oslo.
As noted, not everyone embraced the idea of being secretly photographed. Ads for Stirn’s Concealed Vest Spy Camera promoted a variety of uses including a few that sound eerily familiar. Among them: the ability to photograph public disturbances, catch burglars in the act and obtain proof of cheating spouses.
The National Museum of Science & Media / Science & Society Picture Library collection sells copies of the illustrated cover of sheet music for “Detective Camera” performed by English comedian Dan Leno (1860-1904). James Newland wrote the lyrics and George le Brun wrote the music.
Don’t wink or blink, or even think, but just stay where you are I’ll introduce myself to you—Detective camera
No matter what you do or say, I’ve got you on the spot
A house on fire’s very warm, you’ll find me twice as hot
Chorus: Detective Camera, just stay where you are
In a trice I’ve got you nice. Look out, I spot you
Burglar or thief, sure to come to grief
Don’t wink or blink, or even think
But look out, I’ve got you
Last week a loving couple were going to elope
When all were fast asleep, the young man tied a piece of rope
To his sweetheart’s bedroom window, then whistled to his bride
And with her luggage down the rope she then commenced to slide
I saw a sight far from right, ‘twould make a parson swear
A fellow in the broad daylight, he kissed a girl so fair
He said he thought it was his wife, said I, ‘You’ll pay for this’
When right before my very eyes he kissed her such a kiss
Many patents were filed for a wide range of Victorian Era Spy Cameras. They were disguised in an array of everyday objects from walking sticks to books and paper bags. One successful model was the Hidden Pocket Watch Camera.
Stirn’s vest camera was one of the most successful. It was introduced in October 1886 and continued production until 1892. It consisted of a thin nickel-plated or rusted six-inch diameter device carrying 1 plate for 6 clear snapshots measuring 1 3/4 of an inch in diameter. The package came with six plates and a transport box that held 36 photos.
The camera was designed to wear under a garment with only the lens exposed through an opening such as a buttonhole, just as Stormer did. The company also sold a black walnut carrying case that could be used as a tripod mounting to take time exposures.
The ads claim that 13,000 were sold in two years, 15,000 in three years and 18,000 in 4 years. The camera came in two sizes. The original 6-inch in diameter model weighed 1 pound. It sold for $10 in 1889. The second was 7 inches in diameter and weighed 1 3/4 lb.. It took pictures 2 1/2 inches in diameter that could be used for magic lantern images. That model sold for $ 15 in 1889.
The directions emphasized ease-of-use:
“In order to secure a good, clear picture, place your right hand over the vest exactly where the Camera is hidden, point the lens toward the centre of the object to be photographed and, by pulling with your left hand on the string hanging from the lower part of the Camera, you secure the first picture. Now turn the centre screw or button of the Camera with the dart to No. 2, which causes the Dry Plate to change its position and makes it ready for the next picture; continue thus until six pictures are taken and after that change the Plate for a new one in the dark-room and again you are ready for six more pictures.“
Stormer’s day job involved number theory in mathematics including calculation of π and his own theorem on consecutive smooth numbers. He is also known for his work in the movement of charged particles in the magnetosphere that causes the formation of aurorae.
According to his publisher: He was the first to develop precise photographic methods to calculate heights and morphologies of diverse auroral forms during four solar cycles. Stormer independently devised numerical techniques to determine the trajectories of high-energy charged particles allowed and forbidden in the Earth’s magnetic field. His theoretical analyses explained cosmic ray access to the upper atmosphere, 20 years before they were identified by other scientists.
Even after irritating some of the faculty by photographing them undercover, he worked for many years as a professor of mathematics at the University of Oslo in Norway.
We would sill love to know how the young woman who inspired his street photography reacted when he revealed his story to her years later.
By the way, a crater on the far side of the moon is named after him.
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