Detective Camera

Although hand-held cameras had been around since the 1850s, they hadn’t really managed to achieve mass appeal, as the majority of them required exposures of several seconds, making them impractical as an “instant” camera.

But then, in the late 1870s, simpler and more light-sensitive devices were introduced, and, throughout the 1880s, hand-held camera became more and more popular.


In 1881, Thomas Bolas registered a patent for a hand-held camera that could be used inconspicuously, and he chose to call it the “detective camera.”

The name caught on and, pretty soon, it became a colloquial term for any hand-held camera.

It wasn’t long before manufacturers realised that there might be a demand for more surreptitious hand-held cameras – and they began producing cameras covered in leather or brown paper, made to resemble bags or parcels. Other devices were made to look like books and watches, whilst others were designed to be concealed in watches, ties, hats, walking sticks or waistcoats.


In the 1890’s, the music hall comedian Dan Leno (1860-1904), had great success with the song “Detective Camera”, part of which went:-

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.

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.

A photograph of Dan Leno.
Dan Leno in the 1880s.


Of course, the newspapers had cottoned on to the potential, and popularity, of “Detective Cameras”, and numerous newspaper reports about them appeared in the press throughout the 1890s and on into the early 20th century.

The Glasgow Evening Citizen, for example, published the following article on Monday 6th June 1881

What truth there may be in an item running the course in the French prints no one can say, but it is said that in the leading banking houses in Europe what is called a “detective camera” is to be used.

A man of suspicious appearances makes his way up to the cashiers counter and presents a letter of credit or a draft. The bank clerk is doubtful as to the look of the man.

His signalment he thinks, is worth taking.

The clerk, when the man’s face is full front toward him, touches a little button. Presto, a concealed camera is brought into play, the sensitive plate is exposed, and, in an instant, the man’s photograph is taken.


Further than this, this wonderful detective camera is to play another role.

The head of the house leaves his business and confides it to his clerk. Some of the clerks go to sleep, or smoke cigars, or skylark, or do other things not exactly in keeping with their calling, and off start a series of plates, worked by clockwork, and every notion of the clerks during a series of hours is recorded.”


The Dundee Evening Telegraph, on Tuesday, 21st December 1886, published the following, tongue-in-cheek, article, which lamented the uses to which the new fangled device might be put to by errant boys over the Christmas season:-

“A gloom will  be cast over the approaching Christmas festivities with the announcement that a new weapon has been added to the armoury of mischievous boyhood.

Already equipped with pea-shooter, catapult, and squirt, the bad boy of the family has immense facilities for causing dispeace, but the havoc he will create when armed with the new invention will be simply immeasurable.

This dangerous instrument has been christened “the detective camera,” and it is worked on the principle of instantaneous photographs.


Wearing it on his person, either in the guise of a harmless hat badge or innocent coat button, the bad boy will be able at will to photograph the members of his family in all sorts of embarrassing positions.

The rich uncle will be depicted in the midst of a healthy snore during his after-dinner nap; Miss Midas, the maiden aunt, will be “taken” in the deshabille of her own scanty locks; and sister Polly will be photographed in the act of interchanging private courtesies beneath the Christmas mistletoe.

The boy’s  “detective camera” is going a little too far, and even the genius displayed in its invention will form a poor apology to an outraged world.”


The Star of Gwent, on Friday 22 August 1890, published an article which demonstrated how one of the camera had been used to expose a bullying schoolmaster, albeit the result for the “detective” was, perhaps, not what he had anticipated:-

“A novel use has been found for the instantaneous detective camera.

It seems that at one of the large public schools the rule is that when a form master is under the necessity of caning a boy he must not lift the cane higher than his own shoulder.

Last term, complaints were made that one of the masters habitually disregarded the rule; but as this was invariably denied by the castigator himself, one of the young rascals determined to bring him to book.

Accordingly a detective camera was produced at the moment of punishment, the master’s attention being otherwise occupied, and a proof struck off exhibiting, without possibility of doubt, the cane elevated beyond regulation point.


The head master, to whom the photograph was shown, with a strict sense of justice. condemned his subordinate, but at the same time promptly gave the scholar 400 lines for “playing in class.”


The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, on Tuesday, 25th November 1902, took a close look at the camera’s usefulness in the fight against crime:-

“Probably few of the tens of thousands of persons who take a practical interest in photography have much idea of its value as a detector of crime, although this is one of the most interesting, of all its many phases of usefulness.

In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that, both n Europe and America, hundreds of criminals are now behind prison bars who, but for the camera, would yet be at liberty to carry their illegal practices.

In all cases of forgery photography is simply invaluable; for there is no forger in the world clever enough to baffle its detective skill.


An interesting proof of this was provided a few years ago in the case of a disputed will.

A wealthy merchant in the Midlands of England had died, as was supposed, intestate, in which case his estate would have been equally divided between his four sons and two daughters. One of the sons, however, produced a will made over twenty years before, leaving the deceased’s estate to himself after the payment of certain small legacies to his brothers and sisters.

On the face of the will bequest to “my son Richard” was unmistakably clear; but a microscopic examination raised some suspicion that the name of the legatee had been tampered with.

A photograph of the name was taken and enlarged enormously, with the result that beneath the name “Richard” was found in faint outline the name of another brother, Edward, who was his father’s partner and favourite son, thus proving that daring forgery had been committed.

In another case of a suspected forgery of a will, an enlarged photograph revealed the pencilled lines over which the signatures of the testator and witnesses had been written, although no trace of them was visible even under the microscope.


This is one of the peculiarities of the camera, that it brings to light marks which are quite invisible even through a microscope, just as it has been known to reveal the signs of measles and small-pox several days before they become visible to the naked eye.

Where a forged signature is suspected, the method adopted is to take photographs of the genuine and supposed false signatures, magnifying each a hundredfold or more, and compare the results. Under this crucial test the slightest discrepancy becomes exaggerated out out of all comparison with the signature; and every sign of hesitancy (for no forger can write counterfeit signature with perfect ease and fluency) stands revealed.

In a recent case, where it was suspected that certain account-books had been tampered with and false figures substituted for the actual ones, the original figures and entries were distinctly visible, although they had been removed by acid; and it was further proved that the alteration had been made, not by the clerk who was responsible for the books and who was suspected, but by a fellow-clerk who had imitated his writing.


A forged  banknote, however minutely and faithfully the original may have been copied, cannot deceive the eye of the camera, which will not only show the slightest deviation from the genuine note, but also any difference in the texture of the paper used.

In a recent case, where a section of a cheque had been removed, and another piece in the form of pulp substituted with infinite skill, the camera revealed the fraud at once, showing exactly where the new and old paper were joined.

In London a short time ago, the claimant of a large sum of money, sought to establish his title by, among other proofs, a photograph of a brass which had many years earlier been removed from the church, and which recorded certain dates and facts necessary to prove his claim.

The photograph had all the appearance of being genuine, but when it was magnified it was found to be a copy, not of a brass, but of a skilfully formed imitation of one, a marvel of clever penmanship.


In more than one case, the camera has unravelled a mystery which completely baffled the resources of detectives.

In the famous museum at Scotland Yard may be seen a large framed photograph of a chisel on which may clearly be seen the letters “rock.”

This was the chisel that was proved, on the strength of this photograph, to have belonged to a man named Orrocks, who murdered a constable named Cole, a few years ago, and which was found by the side of the murdered man.

It was only when this chisel came under the camera’s eye that these convicting letters became visible, and led to the arrest and execution of a dastardly murderer.


Only a few months ago the camera was the means of bringing murderer to justice in Germany.

A man had been found murdered in a field by the side of the railway a few miles from Breslau, and the man suspected of the crime pleaded and seemed likely to prove an alibi.

To one of the spectators of the trial, however, his face and figure seemed familiar, and it flashed on him that the prisoner figured in one of his photographs.

On looking through them, he discovered a snap-shot which he had taken from the train near the scene of the murder, and with the very date of the crime marked on the back. In the picture two men were walking together on a field footpath which ran by the side of the railway, and one of them looked remarkably like the suspected man.

The photograph was enlarged, and it was then placed beyond doubt that the two men were the suspected prisoner and his unhappy victim.”