JF Ptak Science Books
Few of the cottage-industry biographies of Charles Dickens recognize his work as a developing private investigator (then known as "private enquirer"), which is an extraordinary thing, as Dickens was perhaps among the most keen and astute observers of human traits and activity in the 19th century. The source for most of this information are the letters and diary entries of Dickens' long-time friend and supreme confident, John Forster1 (who papers are now in the British Library), and take the form of an outline for a novel and so confusing fact with fiction, perhaps explaining the relative lack of attention to this fascinating part of Dickens' life.
Dickens' interest in pursuing the pursuable, of criminals and crime and prisons and workhouses and so on, has been long established, a pursuit of his throughout the whole of his life. In addition to establishing a protocol for the investigation of crime, Dickens seems to be the first to recognize the great value of a standardized method of communicating the description of criminals from one jurisdiction to the next. Describing someone as short, bulging, ambiguous, with a harlot's son's nose and a twisted smile doesn't go very far in identifying someone unless you knew that there was one way of defining each one of those characteristics. Dickens created such an instrument in his Telegraphic Aiding Identifier, a device he would finally patent in 1854 with the aid of his attorneys Foyle & Mole (applied for at Coven Garden).
[Wood engraving of a section of the Dickens' Telegraphic Aiding Identifier--the name of which is somewhat visible under the date at the top of the cabinet--as it appeared in a short notice, "A Curious Picture-Maker", in The Athanaeum, December 12, 1857.]
The telegraph was the internet of the mid-19th century, and Dickens sought to employ it in a network of 72 policing stations throughout Great Britain. The concept and implementation was simple if not somewhat complex. The outline of a head of a generic person was divided into three segments--front, left, and right--on top of which was place a grid of 7x20 rectangular sections. Each one of these sections would have on average an associated dozen cards of pictorial and textual description of that section of the head or face. Each card would be a description of that part of a head, though there would be some sections--for example, for the eyes and nose and mouth and teeth--that would have more options. The person creating a likeness of a suspect then would work their way through each section and within that through the cards describing the attribution of that section of the head until all (or as many) of the 420 areas (140x3) of the head were uncovered.
The ingenious part of this idea was that each one of the cards with the descriptive characteristic were numbered. In this way then if one police station needed to communication the description of a suspect to another jurisdiction 100 miles away they would simply use a series of numbers. Each police station would own identical sets of these cards, so that all the receiving station would need to do would be to select the descriptive cards at their end and start placing them in order on their three head outlines and after a short interval a picture of the suspect would appear. The most important aspect of this was that there was a common denominator, so "pudgy split lip" would appear the same to the sending and receiving stations. Absent any other means of communicating images and their descriptions instantly in the pre-facsimile days this was--or would have been--a significant development.
Dickens was also at work in developing a method for the back of the head, something he felt was severely overlooked (sorry!). In 1853, following at least a dozen years2 of thought on the topic, he undertook a study on witnesses to crimes in London and found that nearly 45% of all those who witnessed the alleged perpetrator of a crime saw the suspect fleeing--i.e., seeing the back of their head, and backs, and so on. Dickens felt that this was valuable information gone wanting. Before he moved on to other interests--and after all was said and done finding no investors for his telegraphic identifying machines--Dickens assembled a collection of photos of the backs of the heads of some 600 convicts to work on prototypes of his classification system.
There does seem to be substantial merit to parts of Dickens' ideas, especially that of an instantly communicable and standardization discussion of traits of appearances over distances. Much like the idea of fingerprints3 that would developed by Francis Galton (in his Finger-Prints, published in 1892) Dickens' overall theme of sifting information into translatable batches was a good one; though unlike Galton, neither his ideas nor his methodology were recognized and seem to have been utterly forgotten.
Here is one of the many images of the backs of heads, this of Elizabeth Purtelworth, a confidence women and occasional grabber of truck meat in the East End:
This was also perhaps the largest collection of photographic images of the backs of heads in Great Britain at this time--evidently the back of the head was not a particularly time-worthy pursuit for the vast number of working photographers.
An interesting series of frames and the empty and non-images in them was drawn by Forster in notes for his biography some time in 1859. This was Dickens' "memory palace" card; it was meant to be shown to the person constructing the image of the suspect as an aid exciting memory in placing imagined portraits in an empty frame, "a cup to hold the tea" as Dickens once remarked.
It should be noted that Dickens had no interest in the application of the contemporary interest of phrenology4 in his detective/police work, describing it as "waffle and wattle, pride and piffle", an entire waste of time, and a detraction from the scientific aspects of police and public service work.
As with the vast amount of correspondence that Dickens burned--seemingly on a whim and without consulting his friend and biographer Forster--in 1860, all of his work on the Telegraphic Aiding Identifier, including the prototypes of the analyzer, were burned by Dickens in the summer of 1869. One wonders why Dickens abandoned this project, except that there was just no time for him to dedicate to it. At the time he was writing furiously, sometimes two books at the same time and creating them in installments of a weekly or monthly intervals, editing a newspaper/journal, corresponding, traveling, acting, staging theater productions, doing good works, and running a large family...it is astonishing that one person did even half of what he accomplished.
1. John Forster, historian and writer, 1812-1876, was friends with Dickens since their first meeting in 1836, and survived Dickens by six years or so, and may have been his most intimate friend, male or female. His biography of Dickens, in three volumes, was published from 1872-1874.
2. This was well before Dickens' first trip to the United States--traveling there for the first time in 1842, full of hope and potential understanding, but leaving it semi-pissed off about the social organization, spitting, and the amount of money U.S. publishers were stealing from him by pirating his work--and before he became aware of (or met) the creator of the detective in fiction, Edgar Allen Poe. There's also Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)--another good friend of Dickens'--to consider, though his detective work in literature comes after Dickens' creations.
3. Work on fingerprints used in the identification of criminals was undertaken earlier in the 1860's by William James Herschel, though Galton's work was of a far more scientific nature.
4. This popular Victorian interest and pastime was created out of mostly dust, sticks, and thin air by Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832).
ALSO: the following two illustrations display some of the inner mechanics of Dickens analyzer. In "Fig 2" we see a subset of cards intended for the eye, which contained a further 130 cards of eye images and descriptions. The two "wands" at right were meant to be used for covering one eye (to distort the depth of field) while the other was used to obscure the field of vision.
Below we see the "trolleys" on which the cards are stored in the cabinet's interior--each one of the enumerated sections of the cabinet would contain one (or more) of these trays which held the image/descriptive cards for that section of the face.
Entry in the series Museum of the Imaginary and the Impossible