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  • Writer's picturePeter Berthoud

A Forgotten Invention: World’s First Security Camera, London 1933

In 1933 Mr Norbury, an amateur photographer and chicken keeper, invented the world’s first security camera in London.

His invention was largely ignored at the time, only now can we see him as the true father of camera surveillance.

Norbury's box camera

Mr Norbury, came up with his world changing invention years before anyone else. He explained at the time how the idea came to him.

"For some time I noticed that eggs and chickens were occasionally missing from my allotment. The eggs seemed to be disappearing from the large tin tub I put them in, inside a small hut near the hen run. Therefore. I decided to try to photograph anyone who opened the hut door.”

So in late July 1933 Mr. Norbury installed his ground-breaking surveillance equipment at the huts on his allotment in Palmer’s Green, London.

He used an ordinary small box camera, which he put inside another hut, with the lens facing through hole in the wall. He ran some cord under the ground through an iron pipe from one hut the other, attaching one end to some sandbags to work the lever of the camera, and other to the door of the smaller hut.

He also fixed a second cord to the door, so that when it was opened it made a piece of metal rattle against the tin tub in which the eggs are kept. The rattle was to have the effect of making an intruder look up in surprise and consequently the nearby camera would get a profile view of him.

This ingenious device soon proved effective. On July 27th 1933 Frederick William Barnwell, a 30 year old plumber from Wood Green London, stole two eggs from the hut and Norbury had the photographic evidence to prove it.

On the 4th of August 1933 the photos were produced in court at Barnwell’s trial.

Asked how the photograph was taken, a detective replied, "Taken by the prisoner himself."

Barnwell pleaded guilty. The magistrate (Sir William Rice) complimented Mr. Norbury on his ingenuity, and remarked to the police inspector: "Have you vacancy in the Force for a young man of promise?"

Presciently, Mr. Norbury remarked that he believed his idea “could be used in many ways”.

Barnwell’s trial and thus Norbury’s invention wasn’t widely reported at the time. The two best accounts I can find come from the Nottingham Evening Post - Friday 4th August 1933 and the Gloucester Citizen - Saturday 5th August 1933. It is from these two sources that I have drawn the above quotes and descriptions. Unfortunately the two papers can’t agree on Mr Norbury’s first name, In Nottingham he is referred to as William, in Gloucester as Robert. They are agreed however that Mr R or W Norbury lived in Whittington Road, Bowes Park.


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