Inspiration Online Magazine


When was the first practical
application of fingerprinting?

Chinese clay seals with thumb prints
In ancient China, thumb prints were found on clay seals.

The earliest dated prints of the ridged skin on human hands and feet were made about 4,000 years ago during the pyramid building era in Egypt. In addition, one small portion of palm print, not known to be human, has been found impressed in hardened mud at a 10,000-year old site in Egypt. In ancient Babylon, fingerprints on clay tablets were used for business transactions; in fourteenth-century Persia, many government papers had fingerprints on them; and in Nova Scotia, a prehistoric picture shows a hand with ridge patterns.

It was common practice for the Chinese to use inked fingerprints on official documents, land sales, contracts, loans and acknowledgments of debts. The oldest existing documents so endorsed date from the 3rd century BC, and it was still an effective practice until recent times. Even though it is recorded that the Chinese used their fingerprints to establish identity in courts in litigation over disputed business dealings, researchers fail to agree as to whether the Chinese were fully aware of the uniqueness of a fingerprint or whether the physical contact with documents had some spiritual significance.

Both Nehemiah Grew, M.D. with his 1684 report for the Royal Society of London, and the anatomist Govard Bidloo from Holland in his book on human anatomy in 1685, discussed and illustrated their recognition of the friction ridges and the pores within those ridges. A small number of other academics from various European countries also made anatomical studies of the skin. In 1686 a professor of anatomy, Marcello Malpighi, described the ridges, loops, and spirals of fingerprints. J.C.A. Mayer, in his 1788 book Anatomische Kupfertafeln Nebst Dazu Gehorigen, was the first to state that the “arrangement of skin ridges is never duplicated in two persons." In 1823, another anatomy professor, John Evangelist Purkinje, was the first to describe nine basic fingerprint patterns.

It was not until 1858 that the first practical application of the science was made, when an English administrator in India, Sir William Herschel, commenced placing the inked palm impressions and, later, thumb impressions of some members of the local population on contracts. These prints were used as a form of signature on the documents because of the high level of illiteracy in India and frequent attempts at forgery. Herschel also began fingerprinting all prisoners in jail.

The greatest advances in fingerprint science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were probably made by Dr. Henry Faulds, a Scottish missionary doctor of the United Presbyterian Church. Faulds first became interested in fingerprints after 1874 while working at the hospital he established in Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan. After careful experiment and observation, he became convinced that fingerprint patterns did not change, that the fingerprint patterns on the fingers where highly variable and that superficial injury did not alter them, they returned to their former design as the injury healed.

Faulds described the pattern formations on the fingers, referred to "loops" and "whorls" and stating how good sets of fingerprints may be obtained by the use of "a common slate or smooth board of any kind, or a sheet of tin, spread over very thinly with printer's ink. His most important conclusion was that fingerprints do not change and that finger marks (that is, latent prints) left on objects by bloody or greasy fingers "may lead to the scientific identification of criminals".

There is no clear date at which fingerprinting was first used.
However, significant modern dates documenting the use of fingerprints for positive identification are as follows:

In ancient Babylon, fingerprints were used on clay tablets for business transactions.

In ancient China, thumb prints were found on clay seals.

In 14th century Persia, various official government papers had fingerprints (impressions), and one government official, a doctor, observed that no two fingerprints were exactly alike.

1686: In 1686, Marcello Malpighi, a professor of anatomy at the University of Bologna, noted in his treatise; ridges, spirals and loops in fingerprints. He made no mention of their value as a tool for individual identification. A layer of skin was named after him; "Malpighi" layer, which is approximately 1.8mm thick.

1823: Jan Evangelista Purkyne, a professor of anatomy at the University of Breslau, published his thesis discussing 9 fingerprint patterns, but he did not mention the use of fingerprints to identify persons.

Herschel - Konai contract with handprint

1858: The English first began using fingerprints in July of 1858, when Sir William Herschel, Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly district in Jungipoor, India, first used fingerprints on native contracts. On a whim, and with no thought toward personal identification, Herschel had Rajyadhar Konai, a local businessman, impress his hand print on a contract. The idea was merely "... to frighten [him] out of all thought of repudiating his signature." The native was suitably impressed, and Herschel made a habit of requiring palm prints--and later, simply the prints of the right Index and Middle fingers--on every contract made with the locals. Personal contact with the document, they believed, made the contract more binding than if they simply signed it. Thus, the first wide-scale, modern-day use of fingerprints was predicated, not upon scientific evidence, but upon superstitious beliefs. As his fingerprint collection grew, however, Herschel began to note that the inked impressions could, indeed, prove or disprove identity. While his experience with fingerprinting was admittedly limited, Sir Herschel's private conviction that all fingerprints were unique to the individual, as well as permanent throughout that individual's life, inspired him to expand their use.

1880: Dr Henry Faulds published his first paper on the subject in the scientific journal Nature in 1880.[8] Returning to the UK in 1886, he offered the concept to the Metropolitan Police in London but it was dismissed.

1882: In 1882, Gilbert Thompson of the U.S. Geological Survey in New Mexico, used his own thumb print on a document to prevent forgery. This was a receipt issued by Gilbert Thompson to "Lying Bob" in the amount of 75 dollars and is the first known use of fingerprints in the United States.

Bertillon's system included measurements  of the forearm

Also in 1882, Alphonse Bertillon, a Clerk in the Prefecture of Police of at Paris, France, devised a system of classification, known as Anthropometry or the Bertillon System, using measurements of parts of the body. Bertillon's system included measurements such as head length, head width, length of the middle finger, length of the left foot; and length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.

1892: Sir Francis Galton published a detailed statistical model of fingerprint analysis and identification and encouraged its use in forensic science in his book Finger Prints. Galton identified the characteristics by which fingerprints can be identified. These same characteristics (minutia) are basically still in use today, and are often referred to as Galton's Details.

Also in 1892, Juan Vucetich, an Argentine police officer who had been studying Galton pattern types for a year, made the first criminal fingerprint identification. He successfully proved Francisca Rojas guilty of murder after showing that the bloody fingerprint found at the crime scene was hers, and could only be hers.

1897: World's first Fingerprint Bureau opens in Calcutta (Kolkata), India after the Council of the Governor General approved a committee report (on 12 June 1897) that fingerprints should be used for classification of criminal records. Working in the Calcutta Anthropometric Bureau (before it became the Fingerprint Bureau) were Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. Haque and Bose are the Indian fingerprint experts credited with primary development of the fingerprint classification system eventually named after their supervisor, Sir Edward Richard Henry.

1901: The first United Kingdom Fingerprint Bureau was founded in Scotland Yard. The Henry Classification System, devised by Sir Edward Richard Henry with the help of Haque and Bose, was accepted in England and Wales.

1902: First systematic use of fingerprints in the US by the New York Civil Service Commission for testing. Dr. Henry P. DeForrest pioneers US fingerprinting.

1903: The New York State Prison system began the first systematic use of fingerprints in US for criminals.

1904: The use of fingerprints began in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, and the St. Louis Police Department. They were assisted by a Sergeant from Scotland Yard who had been on duty at the St. Louis World's Fair Exposition guarding the British Display. Sometime after the St. Louis World's Fair, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) created America's first national fingerprint repository, called the National Bureau of Criminal Identification.

Edmond Locard

1918: Edmond Locard wrote that if 12 points (Galton's Details) were the same between two fingerprints, it would suffice as a positive identification. Locard's 12 points seems to have been based on an unscientific "improvement" over the eleven anthropometric measurements (arm length, height, etc.) used to "identify" criminals before the adoption of fingerprints.

1924: In 1924, an act of congress established the Identification Division of the FBI. The IACP's National Bureau of Criminal Identification and the US Justice Department's Bureau of Criminal Identification consolidated to form the nucleus of the FBI fingerprint files. By 1946, the FBI had processed 100 million fingerprint cards in manually maintained files; and by 1971, 200 million cards. With the introduction of automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) technology, the files were split into computerized criminal files and manually maintained civil files. Many of the manual files were duplicates though, the records actually represented somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 million criminals, and an unknown number of individuals in the civil files.


CURIOUS FOOTNOTE: Prior to using fingerprints to identify individuals, a system of measuring bony parts of the body was used. This system was devised in the late 1800s by Alphonse Bertillon, a French anthropologist. Bertillon measured certain bony body parts and then used a formula to come up with a value that would apply to only one person in the world and would not change during that person's lifetime. This technique, named the Bertillon System after its inventor, was accepted as valid for 30 years. In 1903, a bizarre event triggered the end of the Bertillon system. A man by the name of Will West was sent to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. The problem was that the penitentiary already had an inmate named William West. When photographs of the two men were compared, they were identical. When the authorities used Bertillon measurements, they indicated that both men were the same person. Finally, their fingerprints were compared, proving they were indeed two different individuals. When authorities reviewed prison records and correspondence from the men's families, they discovered that Will West and William West were identical twins. In that same year, the New York state prison system began using fingerprints to identify criminals, and a year later fingerprint identification was started at the Leavenworth penitentiary. Thanks to the West brothers, today we only have to put an inked thumbprint on a piece of paper, rather than have all of our bony body parts measured.

~From: Do Fish Drink Water? by Bill McLain

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