From the vault: a spotlight on Jaeger-LeCoultre’s 1930s Compass Camera
The object: Designed by Englishman Noel Pemberton Billing in 1937, the Compass was his response to a bet that he could devise a full-function camera, which took up no more space than a cigarette packet. Billing was also a poet, writer and engineer with a hundred or so inventions to his credit. Coincidentally, 1937 was the year that Jaeger and LeCoultre made the name double-barrelled, forming one of the best-known Swiss watch brands in the world.
The provenance: Billing, who also worked on sound recorders, airplanes and other high tech of the era, sought the skills of the world’s best mechanical miniaturists: a watch ‘manufacture’. LeCoultre & Cie had devised hundreds of calibres, including the world’s smallest and thinnest movements, as well as the Atmos clock. In 1934, Pemberton Billing visited the company, ‘where his project met with great enthusiasm’.
The design details: Like a mechanical watch, the Compass required three years of development and contained 290 components. It caused a sensation among photographers because this true miniature came ‘fully loaded’, its features including an exposure meter, range finder, telescopic lens shade, inbuilt filters, extinction meter, EV indicator, angle viewfinder, a device for panoramic and stereoscopic views, and an ultra-light mini-tripod.
The signs of the times: Less than half the size of the leading ‘compact’, Leica’s III, the Compass was unlike any film camera before in that it was so truly tiny. It handled 24×36mm exposures on plates, in a body machined from a solid block of aluminium, measuring only 30×53×70mm with the lens closed. The kit added a pocket clip, cable-release and a leather case.
The now factor: According to Jaeger-LeCoultre, only 4000 were made of both the Mk I and KII Compasses. With WWII stopping production, the Compass has always been a rarity. Convenience, too, played its part, because snappers preferred roll film to small plates. Complexity aside, a mint example with all accessories will set you back £4,000-£6,000. Here’s hoping they issue a replica … even digital.