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This article analyses the curious development and subsequent refinement of the Photo-FIT system for the identification of criminal suspects, used by police forces around the world from the 1970s. Situating Photo-FIT in a succession of other technologies of identification, it demonstrates that, far from representing the onward march of science and technology (and the way in which both were harnessed to the power of the state in the twentieth century), Photo-FIT was the brainchild of an idiosyncratic entrepreneur wedded to increasingly outmoded notions of physiognomy. Its adoption by the Home Office was primarily determined by the particular context of the later 1960s, and its continued use owed more to vested interest and energetic promotion than to scientific underpinnings or proven efficacy. It did, however, in the longer term, provide the impetus for the development of a new sub-field of psychology and pave the way for the development of increasingly sophisticated facial identification technologies still used today. Overall, the article demonstrates the long persistence of physiognomic thinking in twentieth-century Britain, the way in which new technology is socially constructed, and the persuasive power of ‘pseudo-science’.

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Corresponding author

History Department, The Open University, Milton Keynes, MK7


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The author wishes to thank Professor Graham Davies for his helpful insights in conversation and for allowing the author sight of an unpublished manuscript in his possession written by Jacques Penry. He also thanks the two anonymous peer reviewers for their detailed and constructive advice.



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1 Photo-FIT prospectus, July 1974, West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS), John Waddington papers, box 69. See also ‘Memorandum about Photo-FIT (New Scotland Yard)’, London, The National Archives (TNA), HO 280/65, 2.

2 The first Photo-FIT image used by Scotland Yard, shown on the Police 5 television programme on 22 Nov. 1970, resulted in the arrest (in Nottingham) of John Bennett for a murder involving a firearm in London (Daily Telegraph, 23 Nov. 1970, p. 3). On successor systems to Photo-FIT, see, inter alia, Davies, G. M. and Valentine, T., ‘Facial composites: forensic utility and psychological research’, in Lindsay, R. C. L., Ross, D. F., Read, J. D., and Toglia, M. P., eds., Handbook of eyewitness psychology, volume 2: memory for people (Mahwah, NJ, 2007), pp. 5983. On the ways in which Photo-FIT shaped the field of facial recognition within psychology, see Davies, G. M. and Young, A. W., ‘Research on face recognition: the Aberdeen influence’, British Journal of Psychology, 1 (2017), pp. 119.

3 The phrase is contained in an influential speech made by Harold Wilson at the Labour Party conference in 1963. See Pimlott, B., Harold Wilson (London, 1992), p. 304.

4 Blain, B. J., ‘Home Office Police Scientific Development Branch’, Journal of Physics E: Scientific Instruments, 12 (1979), pp. 560–3. See also Ben Taylor, ‘Science and the British police: surveillance, intelligence and the rise of the professional police officer, 1930–2000’ (Ph.D. thesis, King's College London, 2016).

5 ‘Minister announces new criminal identity system’, 22 Apr. 1970, WYAS, John Waddington papers, box 69, 1. See also ‘Murderer trapped by Yard's “jig-saw”’, Daily Mirror, 2 Apr. 1971, p. 14.

6 Edgerton, D., The shock of the old: technology and global history since 1900 (London, 2008).

7 Dandeker, C., Surveillance, power and modernity: bureaucracy and discipline from 1700 to the present day (New York, NY, 1990).

8 Caplan, J., ‘“This or that particular person”: protocols of identification in nineteenth-century Europe’, in Caplan, J. and Torpey, J., eds., Documenting individual identity: the development of state practices in the modern world (Princeton, NJ, 2001), pp. 4966; Higgs, E., The information state in England (Basingstoke, 2004); Groebner, V., Who are you? Identification, deception, and surveillance in early modern Europe (Cambridge, MA, 2007); Denis, V., Une histoire de l'identité (Seyssel, 2008); Higgs, E., ‘Change and continuity in the techniques and technologies of identification over the second Christian millennium’, Identity in the Information Society, 62 (2010), pp. 345–54; Brown, J., About, I., and Lonergan, G., eds., Identification and registration practices in transnational perspective (Basingstoke, 2013).

9 On passports and papers, see Torpey, J., ‘Coming and going: on the state monopolization of the legitimate “means of movement”’, Sociological Theory, 16 (1998), pp. 239–59; Torpey, J., The invention of the passport: surveillance, citizenship and the state (Cambridge, 2010); Piazza, P., ‘Septembre 1921: la première “carte d'identité de Français” et ses enjeux’, Genèses, 1 (2004), pp. 7689; Noiriel, G., ed., L'identification. Genèse d'un travail d’état (Paris, 2007); Elliot, R., ‘An early experiment in national identity cards: the battle over registration in the First World War’, Twentieth Century British History, 17 (2006), pp. 145–76. On censuses, see Bödeker, H. E., ‘On the origins of the “statistical gaze”: modes of perception, forms of knowledge and ways of writing in the early social sciences’, in Becker, P. and Clark, W., eds., Little tools of knowledge: historical essays on academic and bureaucratic practices (Ann Arbor, MI, 2001), pp. 169–96; Higgs, E., Making sense of the census revisited (London, 2005); Ruppert, E., ‘“I is; therefore I am”: the census as practice of double identification, Sociological Research Online, 13 (2008), pp. 116. On computer databases, see Agar, J., The government machine: a revolutionary history of the computer (Cambridge, MA, 2003).

10 Foucault, M., Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison (London, 1991), p. 187; Rule, J. B., Private lives and public surveillance (London, 1973); Lyon, D., The electronic eye: the rise of surveillance society (Minneapolis, MN, 1994); Lyon, D. and Zureik, E., eds., Computers, surveillance, and privacy (Minneapolis, MN, 1996); Lyon, D., Surveillance society: monitoring everyday life (Milton Keynes, 2001); Lyon, D., Identifying citizens: ID cards as surveillance (Cambridge, 2009); Solove, D. J., The digital person: technology and privacy in the information age (New York, NY, 2004); Aas, K. F., Gundhus, H. O., and Lomell, H. M., Technologies of insecurity: the surveillance of everyday life (Abingdon, 2009).

11 Wood, D., ‘Situating surveillance studies’, Surveillance and Society, 19 (2009), pp. 5161.

12 See Stanford, T., ‘Who are you? We have ways of finding out! Tracing the police development of offender identification techniques in the late nineteenth century’, Crimes and Misdemeanours, 3 (2009), pp. 5481. On specific technologies, see Williams, C. A., ‘Labelling and tracking the criminal in mid-nineteenth century England and Wales: the relationship between governmental and creating official numbers’, in Sætnan, A., Rudinow, H., Mork, H., and Hammer, S., eds., The mutual construction of statistics and society (Abingdon, 2010), pp. 157–71; About, I., ‘Les fondations d'un système d'identification policière en France, 1893–1914’, Dossier, 54 (2004), pp. 2852; Piazza, P., ed., Aux origins de la police scientifique. Alphonse Bertillon, precursor de la science du crime (Paris, 2011). On ‘Bertillonage’ in Britain, see ‘Working of the Bertillon system’, 31 Jan. 1900, TNA, HO A46508. On fingerprinting, see Cole, S., Suspect identities: a history of fingerprinting and criminal identification (Cambridge, MA, 2002); Cauchi, J. and Knepper, P., ‘The empire, the police and the introduction of fingerprint technology in Malta’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 9 (2009), pp. 7392.

13 Ireland, R. W., ‘The felon and the angel copier: criminal identity and the promise of photography in Victorian England and Wales’ in Knafla, L., ed., Policing and war in Europe (Slough, 2002), pp. 5386; Hamilton, P. and Hargreaves, R., The beautiful and the damned: the creation of identity in nineteenth century photography (London, 2001). The police use of photography as a technology of control has also been noted in broader theoretical studies of visual culture: see Edwards, S., ‘The machine's dialogue’, Oxford Art Journal, 13 (1990), pp. 6376; and Tagg, J., ‘Evidence, truth and order: a means of surveillance’, in Evans, J. and Hall, S., eds., Visual culture: the reader (London, 1999), pp. 244–73.

14 Morgan, G. and Rushton, P., ‘Visible bodies: power, subordination and identity in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world’, Journal of Social History, 39 (2005), pp. 3964; Philips, D., ‘Good men to associate and bad men to conspire: associations for the prosecution of felons in England, 1760–1860’, in Hay, D. and Snyder, F., eds., Policing and prosecution in Britain, 1750–1850 (Oxford, 1989), pp. 113–70.

15 ‘The railway tragedy’, Daily Telegraph, 1 July 1881, p. 3. For further images of LeFroy Mapleton and information about the trial, see Illustrated Police News, 16 July 1881. For the coroner's account of the case, see Winslow, L. Forbes, Recollections of forty years (London, 1910).

16 It is not clear which newspaper image the captain saw, but see, for example, Illustrated Police News, 23 July 1910. The police had also issued a range of images of Crippen on public wanted posters. On Crippen's flight and capture, see Wenzlhuemer, R., ‘The ship, the media, and the world: conceptualizing connections in global history’, Journal of Global History, 11 (2016), pp. 163–86.

17 McDonald, H. C. and Rogers, H. W., The classification of police photographs (Los Angeles, CA, 1941). This was not the first attempt systematically to categorize faces: see, for example, Anderson, C. W. B., The facial index system (Rangoon, 1911).

18 ‘The face in the magic box’, Daily Mail, 8 Mar. 1961, p. 9. For images of the Identi-Kit system, see Identikit, c. 1964, TNA, MEPO 13/315.

19 Daily Mirror, 16 May 1961, p. 15; Times, 11 May 2007, p. 76.

20 ‘Use of Identikits: a note on facial identification techniques’, Aug. 1969, Home Office Police Research and Development Branch, research note 10/69, TNA, HO 377/73.

21 ‘IdentiKit system of identifying persons wanted for crime: demonstration and use’, 1959–64, TNA, MEPO 2/9907.

22 Royal Commission on the Police: final report (London, 1962), p. 76.

23 Taylor, ‘Science and the British police’.

24 On the work of the PSDB, see also Blain, ‘Home Office’, pp. 560–2.

25 Taylor, ‘Science and the British police’, p. 1.

26 King, D., ‘The use of Photo-FIT 1970–1971: a progress report’, Police Research Bulletin, 18 (1971), pp. 40–4.

27 J. Penry, ‘Photo-FIT’, Police Journal, July 1970, pp. 307–16.

28 These included Anglia TV, Southern TV, ITV, and the BBC, as well as United Newspapers, Reuters, and a range of other national and local newspapers.

29 ‘Minister announces new criminal identification system’, 22 Apr. 1970, WYAS, John Waddington papers, box 69.

30 See, for example, ‘Picture brings leads to killer’, Daily Mail, 13 Apr. 1971, p. 5.

31 Williams, C., Police control systems in Britain, 1775–1975 (Manchester, 2014), p. 208.

32 ‘Obituary. Mr Jacques Penry, inventor of the Photofit system’, Times, 11 Nov. 1987, p. 18.

33 L. V. Dodds, ‘Your nose tells all about you’, Daily Express, 13 Dec. 1937, p. 5.

34 See, inter alia, ‘The noses are rolling in’, Daily Express, 20 Dec. 1937, p. 11; ‘First of the readers’ noses’, Daily Express, 29 Dec. 1937, p. 11; ‘Three noses tell different stories’, Daily Express, 6 Jan. 1938, p. 13; ‘Is your nose here?’, Daily Express, 18 Feb. 1938, p. 14.

35 Penry, J., Character from the face (London, 1938), p. 12.

36 Ibid., p.107.

37 Ibid., pp. 9, 14.

38 Pearl, S., About faces: physiognomy in nineteenth-century Britain (Cambridge, MA, 2010).

39 Kretschmer, E., Physique and character: an investigation of the nature of constitution and of theory of temperament (London, 1926).

40 Sheldon, W., Varieties of human physique (New York, NY, 1940); idem, Varieties of temperament: the psychology of constitutional difference (New York, NY, 1942); idem, The atlas of man: a guide for somatotyping the adult male of all ages (New York, NY, 1954); Vertinsky, P., ‘Physique as destiny: William H. Sheldon, Barbara Honeyman Heath and the struggle for hegemony in the science of somatotyping’, Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, 24 (2007), pp. 291316; Corman, L., Visages et caractères. Études de physiognomonie (Paris, 1932); idem, Quinze leçons de morpho-psychologie (Paris, 1937).

41 ‘Your child's character – free offer!’, Picture Post, 18 Mar. 1939, p. 73.

42 ‘He knows your children's secrets’, Daily Mail, 9 Mar. 1939, p. 1.

43 See, for example, ‘The future is in his face’, Daily Mirror, 22 Nov. 1938, p. 15; ‘Mr Penry was right about him’, Daily Mirror, 1 Dec. 1938, p. 15; ‘Does your daughter look at all like this?’, Daily Mirror, 8 Dec. 1938, p. 15; ‘This sort of girl will always have a full stocking’, Daily Mirror, 22 Dec. 1938, p. 11; ‘This boy is a good mixer’, Daily Mirror, 5 Jan. 1939, p. 17; ‘Will she be like Mummy?’, Daily Mirror, 14 Mar. 1940, p. 17.

44 ‘Jacques Penry’, British Pathé, 21 Sept. 1939, film ID 1278.27, media URN 42726.

45 Ibid., at 00:52.

46 For example, ‘This girl should be a woman territorial!’, Daily Mirror, 22 Oct. 1938, p. 15; ‘This girl wants to help Britain!’, Daily Mirror, 27 Oct. 1938, p. 14; ‘These are the best jobs for this man’, Daily Mirror, 5 Nov. 1938, p. 15; ‘A face you couldn't swindle’, Daily Mirror, 8 Dec. 1938, p. 19.

47 ‘Why Gamelin will triumph’, Daily Mirror, 16 Oct. 1939, p. 10.

48 See, for example, ‘The uncommon task’, Guardian, 1 Oct. 1945, p. 3; ‘Hens and eggs in Nigeria’, Guardian, 25 Oct. 1946, p. 3.

49 Penry, J., The face of man (London, 1952), p. xiii.

50 Ibid., pp. 15, 17.

51 Among those cited extensively in this regard were Berman, L., The glands regulating personality (London, 1921); Cobb, I., The glands of destiny (London, 1927); and Hoskins, R. G., The tides of life (London, 1943).

52 Penry, Face of man, p. 76.

53 Ibid., p. 203.

54 ‘The face of your ideal mate’, Daily Mirror, 9 Oct. 1952, p. 14.

55 ‘Let's make faces’, Picture Post, 9 Jan. 1954, pp. 36–7.

56 Cherrill, F., Cherrill of the Yard (London, 1954).

57 Let's make faces, BBC Written Archive Centre (BBC WAC), suggested script.

58 Audience research report, 9 Jan. 1954, BBC WAC, VR/54/25.

59 ‘Let's make faces’, Television Broadcasting News, 19 July 1954, p. 7.

60 ‘At the barrier’, Guardian, 12 Nov. 1954, p. 3; ‘Household gods and ghosts’, Guardian, 21 Jan. 1955, p. 5; ‘Towards sex equality in Nigeria’, Guardian, 17 Feb. 1956, p. 5; ‘Keeping up with the experts’, Guardian, 2 Mar. 1957, p. 4.

61 This quotation is contained within an unpublished set of notes written by Penry entitled ‘The faces man’ (n.d.). The author is grateful to Professor Graham Davies, who shared a copy of this document, which he obtained from Penry's widow after his death.

62 ‘34 police forces use “Photo-FIT”’, Guardian, 2 July 1970, p. 15.

63 Bunn, G. C., The truth machine: a social history of the lie detector (Baltimore, MD, 2012), p. 4.

64 ‘Photo-FIT’, Police Planning Organisation letter, 10 Apr. 1970, WYAS, John Waddington papers, box 69.

65 King, ‘Use of Photo-FIT’. An editor's footnote to the article stated: ‘We should appreciate hearing of any successes which have resulted directly from the use of Photo-fit.’

66 Memorandum about Photo-FIT, 8 Nov. 1974, TNA, HO 280/65, p. 4.

67 Ellis, H., Shepherd, J., and Davies, G., ‘An investigation of the use of the Photo-FIT technique for recalling faces’, British Journal of Psychology, 66 (1975), pp. 2937, at p. 34.

68 See, for example, ‘Facing the limitations of Photo-FIT faces’, New Scientist, 27 Mar. 1975, p. 163.

69 Kitson, T., Darnbrough, M., and Sheilds, E., ‘Let's face it’, Police Research Bulletin, 30 (1978), pp. 713.

70 Ibid., p. 8.

71 G. Davies, H. Ellis, and J. Shepherd, ‘Wanted: faces that fit the bill’, New Scientist, 16 May 1985, p. 26. Despite refinements to the system during the later 1970s and early 1980s, analyses continued to find that the use of Photo-FIT did not significantly improve the clearance rates for cases: see Benett, P., ‘Face recall: a police perspective’, Human Learning, 5 (1986), pp. 197202.

72 J. Penry, ‘Photo-FIT’, Police Journal, July 1970, pp. 307–16, at p. 316, emphasis in original.

73 Penry, J., Looking at faces and remembering them: a guide to facial identification (London, 1971), pp. 1516, emphasis in original.

74 For details of works cited, see n. 51 above.

75 Adam, A., A history of forensic science: British beginnings in the twentieth century (London, 2015); Laybourn, K. and Taylor, D., Policing in England and Wales, 1918–39: the Fed, flying squads, and forensics (London, 2011).

76 Burney, I. and Pemberton, N., Murder and the making of English CSI (Baltimore, MD, 2016).

77 Rock, P., The official history of criminal justice in England and Wales, volume i: the liberal hour (London, 2019), p. 5.

78 ‘Police identification, 1967–1970’, Liberty Archive, University of Hull, DCL/407/8–9; ‘Memorandum on identification parades and procedures from the National Council for Civil Liberties’, 29 Apr. 1968, TNA, HO 291/608; ‘Witnesses and evidence: use of a book of photographs to secure identification of a suspect’, 1968, TNA, HO 287/224; ‘Witnesses and evidence: identification parades; disclosure of Home Office procedures’, 1969–79, TNA, HO 287/223.

79 On this, see Morton, J., Gangland: the lawyers (London, 2013).

80 ‘Identification parades, minutes of the Central Conference of Chief Constables 97th meeting’, item 7, 9 May 1968, TNA, HO 358/28.

81 Alder, K., The lie detectors: the history of an American obsession (New York, NY, 2007), p. 270.

82 Tagg, J., The burden of representation: essays on photographs and histories (Minneapolis, MN, 1993), pp. 66–7, emphasis in original.

83 ‘Memorandum about Photo-FIT’, TNA, HO 280/65. For historical currency conversion, see ‘Purchasing power of British pounds from 1270 to present’,, 2006, and Bank of England, ‘Inflation calculator,, n.d.

84 ‘Sales, costs and royalties’, WYAS, John Waddington papers, box 69.

85 Ibid.; see range of promotional leaflets dated 1973 and 1974.

86 The Times, 12 Oct. 1970, p. 19. The link with Colt is significant as Colt's direct competitor, Smith and Wesson, was the producer and distributor of Identi-Kit.

87 On the public–private link in relation to early police use of CCTV, see Williams, C. A., ‘Police surveillance and the emergence of CCTV in the 1960s’, Crime Prevention and Community Safety, 5 (2003), pp. 2737.

88 King, D. and Dyer, A., ‘Development of Photo-Fit’, Police Research Bulletin, 19 (1972), p. 39, TNA, HO 222/19.

89 Kitson, Darnbrough, and Sheilds, ‘Let's face it’, p. 11.

90 Thrift, N., ‘New urban eras and old technological fears: reconfiguring the goodwill of electronic things’, Urban Studies, 33 (1996), pp. 1464–93, at p. 1468.

91 Ellis, Shepherd, and Davies, ‘Investigation of the use of the Photo-FIT technique’, p. 29.

92 Application for an ESRC research grant: HR 3123, TNA, HO 280/65.

93 Davies, G. and Young, A., ‘Research on face recognition: the Aberdeen influence’, British Journal of Psychology, 108 (2017), pp. 812–30.

94 Davies, G., ‘Capturing likeness in eyewitness composites: the police artist and his rivals’, Medicine, Science and the Law, 26 (1986), pp. 283–90; Clifford, B. and Davies, G., ‘Procedures for obtaining identification evidence’, in Raskin, D. C., ed., Psychological methods in criminal investigation (New York, NY, 1989), pp. 4796; Pike, G., Kemp, R., and Brace, N., ‘The psychology of human face recognition’, IEE Electronics and Communications: Visual Biometrics, 00/018 (2000), pp. 12/1–12/6; Davies and Valentine, ‘Facial composites’.

95 Robinson, J., Catching criminals: some more basic skills (London, 1983). In this text, distributed to police recruits, body shape and type are clearly linked to particular character traits.

96 On the social construction of technology (SCOT) thesis, see the seminal Bijker, W., Hughes, T., and Pinch, T., eds., The social construction of technological systems: new directions in the sociology and history of technology (Cambridge, MA, 1987).

97 Cole, S. A., ‘Scandal, fraud, and the reform of forensic science: the case of fingerprint analysis’, West Virginia Law Review, 119 (2016), pp. 524–48.

98 Mirzoeff, N., ‘What is visual culture?’, in Mirzoeff, N., ed., The visual culture reader (New York, NY, 1998), pp. 313.

99 Cited in Bunn, Truth machine, p. 187.

The author wishes to thank Professor Graham Davies for his helpful insights in conversation and for allowing the author sight of an unpublished manuscript in his possession written by Jacques Penry. He also thanks the two anonymous peer reviewers for their detailed and constructive advice.




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