Who made the world's first photo ID?

Who made the world's first photo ID?

Of all the things Canada has shared with the world, photo ID is probably the least recognized contribution.  Canada is a land of opportunity and invention, and not a nation that hoards the good stuff for itself. 

What else has Canada offered to the world?

  • Basketball (James Naismith)
  • Insulin (Dr. Frederick Banting)
  • Telephone (Alexander Graham Bell)
  • Time Zones (Sir Sanford Fleming)
  • Walkie Talkie (Hings and Gross)
  • Snowmobile (Joseph-Armand Bombardier)
  • Sonar (Reginald Fessenden)
  • Hockey (duh….)

… and the Nanaimo Bar (Edith Adams, in 1953).

William Notman was a celebrated photographer, born in Scotland but living in Montreal, who came up with the idea that generated the modern photo-identity card.  Large expositions in cities around the world all experienced the same problems properly identifying employees, exhibitors, press and officials who made trips to and from an exhibition site.  A signed card or pass was unsatisfactory as it could be transferred to someone else and fraudulently used to gain access.  The solution was called a “photographic ticket”, used for the very first time at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. The Exhibition, held in celebration of 100 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence was attended by 10 million people from 37 countries over the course of 6 months.  William Notman developed this photographic ticket and was awarded the only gold medal of the Exhibition by British judges.

Worlds first photo id“The photographic ticket was in the form of a book-cover and engraved by a bank note company… on the front the number of the ticket, the name of the holder, and his or her relation to the Exhibition fully set forth.  On the order of the inside, a space was set apart for each day that the Exhibition was open, and its date engraved thereon.  Detailed instructions as to how to use it were engraved upon the left-hand side, and on the right-hand side was set apart a space, of well defined size, to be occupied by a photograph of the holder, which was encircled by the seal of this Department.  Upon presentation at one of the class of gates reserved for photographic tickets, the photograph was confirmed with the holder, and if satisfactory to the gate-keeper, the space upon which the date of the representation was engraved weas cut out by a self registering punch.  The stamping of the photograph at the office, and the refusal to permit the tickets to be used on which the photographs were not stamped, prevented the use of this class of tickets by any other than those to whom they were issued.” (excerpt from The world of William Notman: The Nineteenth Century through a Master Lens, by Roger Hall, Gordon Dodds and Stanley Triggs, 1993.)

And there you have it.  The precursor of all modern identity documents that use a person’s photo to make the document non-transferrable was developed by a Canadian.

You’re welcome, world!


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