Invented in Ticino, produced in Grenchen and used on secret missions worldwide: the Tessina camera.
Invented in Ticino, produced in Grenchen and used on secret missions worldwide: the Tessina camera. Swiss National Museum

The Grenchen spy camera: a favourite of the Stasi and the CIA

In 1960 an unusual camera came onto the market: the Tessina, made in Grenchen. It was the world’s smallest 35mm camera at the time. Although never a bestseller, it proved popular with some of the intelligence services.

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr is a cultural and media scientist and lives in Winterthur.

If you search for the term ‘Tessina camera’, you will find a photo on the CIA website: the US secret service used it. So did the Australian secret service. However, the Ministry for State Security in East Germany, the Stasi, was the biggest fan of the device. The Swiss-made camera can be found in a display case at the Stasi Museum on Normannenstrasse in Berlin. There are also dozens of documents in the Stasi archives that show how this small appliance from Switzerland was modified. The Tessina came onto the market in 1960. It was made as a twin lens reflex camera. The picture-taking and viewing lenses were at the top. And it had a clockwork motor, which emitted a characteristic whirring sound when winding. The Tessina was the smallest camera at the time to use the conventional 35mm film format as well as the smallest twin lens reflex camera in the world.
The Stasi took different types of test pictures with the Tessina.
The Stasi took different types of test pictures with the Tessina. Stasi Records Archive, Berlin
The camera was invented by German engineer Rudolf Steineck who lived in Ticino. He patented the camera in 1957 and named it after his adopted home (Tessin being the German name for Ticino). Paul Nagel, a brother of August Nagel, the founder of Contessa- und Nagel-Werke in Stuttgart, subsequently acquired by Kodak, helped with the design. Steineck enlisted Siegrist & Cie in Grenchen to manage the production process. Siegrist & Cie, which is still in business today, specialises in precision engineering and its core business at the time involved supplying parts to the watchmaking industry. The Minox came onto the market at the same time: it was also highly thought of in espionage circles, but it used a very small negative format. The Rollei35, another 35mm camera, launched in 1966, was more successful.
Swiss patent granted for the Tessina in 1957.
Swiss patent granted for the Tessina in 1957. Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property
In the region of 25,000 of these cameras were produced in Grenchen between 1960 and the end of the 1980s, and they remained on the market up to the start of the 2000s. Sales outside Switzerland were outsourced to third parties: in Germany to Robot-Berning and in the US to Swiss expatriate Karl Heitz in New York who was well connected in government circles. Sales of the Tessina were greatest in the US. Distribution was managed by Concava, a company established for that specific purpose in Lugano and which also produced the lenses until 1967. Although the camera was not financially successful and encountered numerous design issues, especially in the early stages, the Tessina was nonetheless a mechanical masterpiece that is still sought after by collectors today. It was used as image advertising for the company and demonstrated the quality of precision engineering associated with Grenchen.
US advert for the Tessina, a ‘technical miracle’.
US advert for the Tessina, a ‘technical miracle’. Archives de Rolf Häfliger

Part of the Watergate affair

In the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, the Tessina earned the dubious distinction of being the spying instrument of choice in an episode that led to the resignation of US President Richard Nixon in 1974. In spring 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst from the RAND think tank, passed on to the New York Times and Washington Post 7,000 pages of a confidential report commissioned by the government to identify persistent shortcomings in the Vietnam war. The documents, known as ‘The Pentagon Papers’ outlined how the US government had been lying to Congress and the public for years. The two newspapers published extracts from the documents until a court order prevented them from continuing to do so. The President was incandescent with rage and appointed a small task force (nicknamed ‘the Plumbers’ within the White House) to identify the leak.
Cartoon image of Richard Nixon trying to explain Watergate to the American public.
Cartoon image of Richard Nixon trying to explain Watergate to the American public. Library of Congress
The people in charge of the operation, former CIA agent Howard Hunt and government official Gordon Liddy, employed some questionable tactics. Hunt obtained spying equipment from the CIA, including a Tessina camera. They then gathered some accomplices together and broke into the practice of psychoanalyst Lewis Fielding in Los Angeles on 3 September 1971. Daniel Ellsberg was one of his patients at the time, and the task force hoped to find some incriminating material there. The ‘Plumbers’ Task Force’ was dissolved at the end of 1971. However, Howard Hunt and his accomplices continued to work for the White House. On 17 June 1972, they orchestrated a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington DC. A night watchman noticed them and called the police, leading to the arrest of five people by the FBI. They found many spy gadgets among their belongings, including two miniature cameras. It is not known whether a Tessina was one of the items found. These arrests led to further investigations and two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovered further disturbing findings with the assistance of their FBI source ‘Deep Throat’. Faced with the weight of evidence against him, Nixon ended up resigning on 9 August 1974.
The FBI may well have seized a Tessina or two in the Watergate scandal.
The FBI may well have seized a Tessina or two in the Watergate scandal. Swiss Camera Museum, Vevey
The Stasi Records Archive in Berlin contains many documents on the Tessina. They show that the Stasi valued the small camera from Grenchen and used it under various forms of concealment. The cameras were hidden in key holders and shopping bags, in neckerchiefs, umbrellas and wallets and even concealed in a plaster cast for use “in front of hospitals”. The ‘cigarette’ model of 1972 was especially sophisticated: opening the packet would initially reveal cigarette filters that could then be removed. Two of the cigarettes were real. The inventors were rewarded with 50 East German marks each.
Fits inside a packet of cigarettes: the Tessina, made in Grenchen.
Fits inside a packet of cigarettes: the Tessina, made in Grenchen. Wikimedia / CIA
The inventors of the ‘Tramp’ model also received a cash bonus in 1984. This time, the camera was hidden in a baggy pair of blue jeans. According to Stasi files, it was particularly suitable for “public festivals, festivals organised by the press, holiday homes, camp sites, open-air pools, places mainly frequented by young people, the negative-decadent youth...”.

Supporting role in a Hitchcock thriller

The camera also had a starring role in the 1969 Hitchcock thriller Topaz, in a scene shot in a Harlem hotel, where French agent Philippe Dubois poses as a journalist when meeting Cuban revolutionaries. He wants to access the plans for stationing Soviet ballistic missiles on Cuba. Before joining Cuban Rico Parra on the hotel balcony where the revolutionary is going to greet his supporters, a body search reveals the Tessina. “What’s that?”, the Cubans ask. “It’s my camera,” answers Dubois. “That’s a funny little camera,” says Parra. Dubois adds: “A very good one.”
Film clip in which the Tessina can be seen briefly (01:19). YouTube
The Tessina almost made the big time: at the beginning of the 1970s National Geographic planned a special edition of its magazine with 3D photos of the moon landing displayed using a special technique. Nine Tessina cameras joined together were selected for the job. The project failed due to technical complications with the printing process, according to Swiss collector Rolf Häfliger who died in April 2023. The Tessina is now a coveted collector’s item that fetches about CHF 500 for the most basic model. Particularly colourful or special models are a lot more expensive. They are included in many museum collections, including that of the Swiss National Museum.

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