A Brief History of CSI

A Brief History of CSI

I love a good crime scene investigation, both in real-life and fiction (I should have been a detective!), and CSI books and TV shows are as popular as ever. But, how did the techniques develop? What are the origins of today’s sophisticated crime-detecting practices? I delved into the history of this fascinating subject to find out more…

The first formal CSI manual was published in 1893 by Austrian professor of criminal law Hans Gross. His groundbreaking book, Criminal Investigation: A Practical Handbook, was translated into English in 1906. Together with French criminalist Edmond Locard, Gross laid the foundations for modern crime scene investigation. The Handbook offered new tools, protocols and practices, which transformed the location where a murder took place, into a ‘crime scene’. His practical manual includes advice on the collection and preservation of physical evidence, the importance of trace evidence such as blood other bodily fluids, and key detective skills like observation and deduction. Gross demonstrates how to sketch a crime scene onto squared paper to plot the exact location of items and the relationship between them, and how to secure crime scene objects. He even made a checklist of equipment for investigators to take to the scene, including blotting paper, a tape measure, plaster of Paris for taking footprints, and a bar of soap for making impressions of keys or teeth.


Crime scene photo, Alphonse Bertillon


In England, there were no CSI handbooks to rival Dr Gross’ work. The nearest equivalent was the Police Code and Manual of Criminal Law, first published by the head of the CID Sir Howard Vincent in 1881. Following a stint in Paris observing the more sophisticated techniques of French detectives, Vincent tried to reform investigative practice back home. Through his Police Code, which ran to sixteen editions until 1924, he sought to formalise the investigative practices and behaviours of the British police. There is no mention in the book of ‘crime scenes’, but there is guidance on how to deal with ‘dead bodies’.


One CSI tool included in the Police Code is the examination of ‘footmarks’, in which it suggests making a model of the impression using plaster of Paris or Spence’s Patent Metal, and then comparing it with the suspect’s foot wear. The guidance warns of the potentially damaging effect of weather, such as rain, and advises covering footprints, in the event of an unexpected shower. This was exactly what Superintendent James Bent did, in August 1876, Superintendent James Bent of the Lancashire Constabulary, whilst investigating the shooting of his colleague PC Nicholas Cock. When it began to rain, Bent covered the marks with a box. He later matched the footprints with the prime suspect William Habron’s left boot. Later that same year, Superintendent Bennett of Berkshire Constabulary took casts of footprints found near the spot where Inspector Joseph Drewett and PC Thomas Shorter were shot, and these were used in evidence against the perpetrators Henry and Francis Tidbury.



Prior to the publication of both these manuals, the only guidance available to investigators was medico-legal textbooks, such as William Augustus Guy’s Principles of Forensic Medicine, published in 1844, and Alfred Swaine Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence, 1865. Although these were aimed at medical witnesses, rather than police officers, Detective Jerome Caminada, of the Manchester Police certainly recognised a copy of Taylor’s book in the hands of an arsonist, who had used the information to set off an explosion.


By the end of the nineteenth century, developments in CSI began to gather pace in England. New techniques included anthropometric measurements, fingerprinting and crime scene photography. These new technologies paved the way for the significant advances in forensic science and crime scene investigation of the early decades of the twentieth century, when crime scene investigation was formalised. The ‘murder bag’ was introduced in 1924, the first version including a large magnifying glass, rubber gloves, a plastic apron and disinfectant. The following decade saw the emergence of forensic laboratories in England, and the first training course for detectives was established in 1935, the curriculum of which included CSI.


© Museum of London



Crime scene investigation is one aspect of the history of detective practice, which I’m studying at Oxford Brookes University for my proposed PhD thesis: The Science of Sleuthing: The Evolution of Detective Practice in English Regional Cities (1838-1914).

If you would like to find out more about my research, you can subscribe to my blog (sign up on the sidebar of this post), ‘like’ my Facebook page Victorian Super Sleuth, and join in my Facebook study group, The Victorian Detectives’ Club. All very welcome!




Burney, I. & Pemberton, N. (2016) Murder and the Making of English CSI. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press

Bell, N. R. A. & Wood, A. (2015) Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889. London, Mango Books

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