There’s this guy I know; one of those old-timey photo geeks that have seen it all and own most of it. He ran a camera shop for god-knows-how-long, the result being that he’s not too impressed by the commonplace – F3s, AE-1s. He’s got hundreds of cameras. Gold-plated Leicas that weren’t available to the public, French cameras no one’s ever heard of, a basement full of the best that camera makers had to offer for more than a century. Lucky for me, he occasionally sends me a very heavy box.
Last week’s box contained the usual, a couple of Canons, an OM-1, but it also brought a camera I’d never held in the hand – the Ticka Watch Camera. A small, nickel-plated disc with old-world engraving, intricate detail, and unusual mechanisms, I knew I was holding a noteworthy machine from a time long passed. I needed to know more, so I donned my finest deerstalker and got to sleuthing. What is the Ticka? Where did it come from? Why does it matter? Let’s find out.
Designed in the early 1900s by Swedish engineer Magnus Neill, the Ticka was the European version of his Expo watch camera, which he patented in the USA in 1904. Produced in England beginning in 1905 by Houghtons, one of the largest glass and camera makers in Britain, and reportedly selling 4,000 units in its first three days of production, the Ticka was a massive success. It went on to see continuous production in various iterations (one with a dummy watch face and another with an anastigmat lens and five-speed focal plane shutter) for the next decade. With the final few copies rolling out in 1914, the camera’s success in Europe seems to have been stymied only by war, evidenced by the fact that the American-made version would enjoy continued success for four more years, ending in 1920.
As his registered patent documents show (included in full above), Magnus Neill understated the achievements he’d made with his incredible design. He simply called it “a new and improved photographic camera.” After a week of handling it, examining it, and doing my research, I’m inclined to agree with the clever Swede, and indeed go one step further. His machine is stunning, and the relatively obscure Ticka deserves to be as highly regarded as any of the more famous pre-war cameras so often discussed in collector circles.
But don’t be fooled; the Ticka Watch Camera isn’t a watch. It’s a camera made to look like a pocket watch, the only timepiece any respectable gent would wear (up to World War I when soldiers started wearing wristwatches en masse, the “bracelet watch” was considered overtly feminine). And though useless as a time teller, the Ticka was by many accounts a very capable camera. The May, 1906 edition of British magazine Photographic Monthly heralded it as “…one of those things that only comes on to the market occasionally, and at once makes for itself a strong assured position.”
It used 17.5mm roll film cartridges that could be loaded and unloaded in daylight, each capable of making twenty-five 16 x 22mm photos. The earliest camera’s meniscus lens was mounted in the “watch’s” winding stem, and exposed its film in conjunction with a dual-speed, spring-loaded shutter capable of “instantaneous” and timed exposures. The crown of the winder was attached to the stem via a small chain, was lined with soft felt, and acted as a lens cap. A lever on the side of the camera charged the shutter, and a tiny post released it when pressed. A viewfinder facilitated framing, taking the form of a simple prism with a silvered reflector and two glass lenses. It was fitted to the stem via a tensioned prong and could pivot to offer both vertical and horizontal shooting. This detachable component, as with the previously mentioned chain and lens cap, was often lost over time and is quite valuable today.
Taking a photo was simplicity itself. Cock the shutter by pulling back on the priming lever, remove the lens cap, frame your shot and press the shutter release. Once done, rotating the film advance winder would advance to the next frame while ratcheting an internal gear to display the frame count. Pretty amazing. And coming from an era in which most cameras were large, heavy, and slow, this little machine was nothing short of a revelation.
Image quality was reportedly very good, and though all advertisements should be regarded with some skepticism, Houghtons’ marketing claimed that Queen Alexandra of Denmark (who was an avid amateur photo geek) was “very pleased with the pictures” she’d taken with the camera. [I’ll see what I can do about exposing some film through this thing – update ASAP] Enlargements as big as 3 1/4″ x 2 1/4″ could be made from Ticka negatives using the Ticka Printing Box.
Build quality is very nice. The camera feels dense and solid, fitment of all moving parts is tight and refined, and the various levers, switches, and knobs all actuate with a precision that’s startling in a machine that’s more than a century old. The camera is a joy to hold and a pleasure to fiddle with, and it’s a piece of photographic history that’s nearly unrivaled in its simple, quirky, allure.
If you’re looking to add a Ticka to your collection, you may be surprised to know that these cameras aren’t too pricey (all things considered). A nice example with attached viewfinder, chain, and lens cap will only cost around $350. As original paperwork, boxes, and accessories are added to the bargain, the costs can begin to climb. But this is expected and accepted. These are timeless (wink) treasures that can’t be replaced. For budget-conscious shoppers looking for a watch camera, try searching for the American Expo. They’re the same, essentially, only more common and slightly less expensive.
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