The 1893 Lancaster Watch Camera: A Pocket-Sized Spy Tool of the Victorian Age

The Lancaster Watch Camera is a fascinating relic from the 1890s that offers a glimpse into the fascinating world of clandestine photography. Although it was not a classic spy camera, it displayed a great blend of artistry and technology.

This watch was made by J. of Birmingham. It was designed by Lancaster & Son and manufactured between 1886 and 1900.

Production spanned a variety of models, starting with a version designed for men before introducing a more petite version designed for women.

These photos show the female version of the Lancaster Watch Camera, a rare and small model.

This unique piece sold for a remarkable $36,000 at a Bonhams auction in 2007. Only four of these are known to exist, not because they were challenging to build, but because they proved quite difficult to use effectively.

Made of metal with nickel plating, this device was cleverly designed to resemble a pocket watch and could easily be carried in a waistcoat pocket.

Interestingly, it was a self-standing camera. When opened, it extended six spring-loaded tubes to form the bellows for the camera.

It had an internal meniscus lens and either a simple rotary shutter in early versions or a drop shutter in later models.

J. Lancaster & Son Birmingham as a nickel plated, engine turned, hunter type pocket watch case, front opening to reveal internally raised six section telescopic lens tubes with internal meniscus lenses and front mounted simple, hand turned, Rotary shutter, rear case reveals a removable 1 x 1 1/4 inch ground glass viewing screen.

The case front has the outer circular engraved 'J Lancaster & Son Patent Birmingham' along with two sensitive material holders.

The camera, made in 1887, would be very inconvenient to use, the ground glass screen would have to be removed by releasing four very small catches and a metal sensitive material holder fitted for each exposure, the front of it would have doors opened by a sliding rear end. A lever extending through a slot in the casing.

To overcome this difficulty an improved camera was introduced in 1890 which had a larger screen frame and more conventional dark slides instead of the previous clock casing, thus destroying the appearance of a normal clock when closed. A drop shutter was also installed.

The women's version of the camera, when turned on, produced exposures measuring 1 1/4 inches x 1 inch, while the larger model for men captured snapshots measuring 2 inches x 1 1/2 inches.

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