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The History of Fingerprinting

In 1870 Alphonse Bertillon, a French anthropologist, devised a system of identification in which the dimensions of certain bony parts of the body were measured and recorded. These measurements were then reduced to a formula. Theoretically, this formula would only apply to one person and wouldn’t change during their adult life. This system was named the Bertillon system, after its inventor. This system seemed to be effective, but it was very hard to search through all the measurements by hand in order to find a person with one arm that was a centimeter longer than the other. It was generally accepted for about thirty years until two men with almost the same name had nearly identical measurements. The system never recovered from this incident.

In ancient civilizations, a criminal was marked as a criminal through branding or maiming. The thief would lose the hand that was used to commit the thievery. Some ancient civilizations used fingerprints as a way of sealing documents or “signing” official papers. In ancient Babylon, the clay tablets that were used for business transactions required fingerprints. In ancient China and 14th century Persia, thumb prints were found on clay seals or on various official documents. In Persia, one government official observed that no two fingerprints were exactly alike.

In 1686, Marcello Malpighi, a professor of anatomy at the University of Bologna, noticed ridges, spirals and loops in fingerprints but didn’t mention their value for individual identification. In 1823, another professor of anatomy wrote a thesis discussing 9 fingerprint patterns, but again didn’t make mention of the importance in these patterns for identification. He is accredited as the first to study fingerprints under a microscope.

The English began using fingerprints in 1858. Sir William Herschel decided to impress his handprint on the back of a contract in order to frighten people out of reproducing his signature. Eventually, he made a habit of requiring palm prints, and after a while, only the prints of the right index and middle fingers. He believed this made the contract more binding than if it was simply signed. As his fingerprint collection grew, he began to discover that none of the inked impressions were the same. He realized that fingerprints were unique to the individual and that they stayed the same throughout that individual’s life.

In the 1870’s, Dr. Henry Faulds began to study “skin-furrows”. He recognized the importance of fingerprints as a means of identification and devised a method of classification. He gave a detailed explanation of his system to Charles Darwin. Darwin was growing old and his health was failing him but he promised Dr. Faulds that he would pass on the information to his cousin, Francis Galton. Dr. Faulds also published an article in which he discussed the use of fingerprints for identification and using printer ink for obtaining these prints.

The first known use of fingerprints in the United States was by Gilbert Thomson of the U.S. geological Survey in New Mexico in 1882. He used his own fingerprints on a document in order to prevent forgery.

Charles Darwin passed along the information from Dr. Faulds to Sir Francis Galton, who began observing the use of fingerprints for identification in the 1880’s. He published a book in 1892 discussing the individuality and permanence of fingerprints. He included the first classification system for fingerprints in his book. He discovered that fingerprints couldn’t be used to determine intelligence or genetic history and that fingerprints don’t change over time. He calculated that the odds of two individuals having exactly the same fingerprints were about 1 in 64 billion. He was credited with naming the original 5 details which are found in a fingerprint; dot, ending ridge,
enclosure, bifurcation, and an island. These are often referred to as Galton’s details.

An Argentine police official, Juan Vucetich began the first fingerprint files in 1891 based on the Galton fingerprint patterns. He made the first criminal fingerprint identification in 1892 from a bloody fingerprint found on a door post.

In England and Wales, the use of fingerprints for criminal identification was introduced in 1901. Galton’s observations were revised by Sir Edward Richard Henry. This was the beginning of the Henry classification system that is still used today in all English speaking countries.

In 1905, the U.S. army began using fingerprints for personal identification. In 1918, Edmond Locard wrote that if there were 12 points (details) that matched between two fingerprints, it would prove a positive identification. This quota is often still used today. Some countries set their own standards for the number of points that must match.

Many fingerprint files were manually maintained. It took a lot of work to search for a positive match. When technology permitted fingerprints to be entered into a computer database for classification, the art of fingerprint identification improved a huge deal. It allowed unknown prints to be scanned and matched with prints on file through a computer search.