The History of CCTV


If you’ve been out today, there’s a very good chance that you’ve been caught on camera. As of 2016, there are about 350 million CCTV cameras worldwide. We have become a planet under surveillance.

In the Beginning

The CCTV camera has a somewhat inauspicious origin story. The technology was first used by Seimens AG for the Nazis in 1942.  The cameras were installed at Test Stand VII in Peenemunde, Germany, for observing the launch of V-2 rockets.

This was a very basic system that could only be used for live monitoring. They technology did not yet exist for such systems to record footage.

Rumble in the Jungle

One of the earliest applications of CCTV came via the world of boxing, where it was used as a form of pay-per-view theatre TV.

Boxing telecasts were broadcast live to a select number of venues where viewers paid for tickets to watch the fight live.

The first fight to be broadcast via CCTV was Joe Lewis vs. Joe Walcott in 1948. These telecasts grew in popularity, peaking with the iconic fights of Muhammad Ali in the 1960s and 1970s. Possibly his most famous tussle, the  Rumble in the Jungle  against George Foreman in Zaire (modern day Congo) drew  50 million CCTV viewers worldwide in 1974.

Fighting Crime

Although the city of Hamburg in Germany had used CCTV to monitor traffic coming to its annual industrial trade fair in the late 1950s, the first use of such systems to tackle crime, which is what we associate CCTV with today, began in the 1960s.

The UK became an early pioneer, when the Metropolitan Police used two temporary cameras in Trafalgar Square to monitor crowds who had come to see to the arrival of the Thai royal family.

The USA then set the pace, starting with the city of Olean, New York, which in 1968 became the first local authority to install video cameras along its main business street in an effort to fight crime. Olean’s example started a trend which would see several towns and cities across the USA adopt this new technology.

VCR- The Game Changer

A significant development in the history of CCTV occurred when video cassette recordings (VCRs) became widely available in the 1970s. This technology was quickly adopted and  incorporated into surveillance systems.

It was now no longer necessary for people to monitor the screens live. Instead, the systems could be set up and left to run independently. Users could then review what had been recorded at a later time. This made CCTV much more popular among businesses.

CCTV and the UK

CCTV has proven to be very popular amongst businesses, local authorities and police forces in the UK. The country’s citizens are amongst the most surveilled in the world. According to the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) there are between 4-5.9 million CCTV cameras in the country. There are 500,000 cameras in London alone, with some of most watched locations being:

Oxford Circus: 309 cameras
Green Park: 210 cameras
Bank/Monument: 182 cameras

It’s Not Big Brother!

Although the stereotypical image of the CCTV camera is that of one owned by the government (Big Brother is Watching You!), in reality the majority of cameras in the UK are  privately owned.

Why has CCTV Become so Popular?

Technical developments, such as the ability to record at night, digitisation and networking have helped broaden the appeal of the technology. But equally important has been the evidence that illustrates CCTV’s effectiveness in fighting crime.

For example, a 2009 review by researchers from Northeastern University and the University of Cambridge, which looked at over 40 different studies that  had researched the impact  of CCTV on crime levels, found that :

     CCTV caused a significant reduction of crime by on average 16 per cent
     The largest effects of CCTV were found in car parks, where cameras reduced crime by on average 51 per cent
     In  city and town centres CCTV schemes had 7 per cent reduction in crime and in public transport settings the reduction was 23 per cent

CCTV for Business
A recent study by the University of Leicester found what most businesses have realised for some time,  that CCTV is a great deterrent for pre-planned crime. It seems that criminals actively avoid stealing from premises that appear knowledgeable about crime and prevention.

Considering that the average burglary costs a business £1,376 per incident, it’s easy to understand why CCTV has become so popular and why so many businesses are willing to invest in it.

But There are Controversies

The expansion of CCTV, both in the UK and elsewhere, has not come without controversy. The idea of being constantly monitored, of the state being able to follow your every move has made some people wary and led others to suggest that we are heading towards a ‘surveillance society.’

There have also been concerns that the large amounts of cash spent on CCTV does not result in good value for money. Critics point out that the UK’s crime rate is not dissimilar to other, less surveillanced, countries and that the money invested in CCTV might be better spent on more police officers, local authority employees (park keepers, toilet attendants) or bus/train conductors.

The Future?

With new technology arriving, such as 4K, which can greatly enhance an image and lessen the number of cameras needed, it’s unlikely that we will see CCTV disappear from our streets any time soon. The UK fell in love with being watched and it's a romance that looks in no danger of fizzling out.

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