The historical development of fingerprinting

The historical development of fingerprinting
The use of fingerprints, possibly as signatures, on ancient artefacts suggests that
human beings were aware of friction ridge patterns thousands of years ago. The
ancient Chinese, for example, used clay seals impressed with finger or thumb-marks
to seal official documents, prior to the first century B.C. However, it was not until the
late 17th century that the first written description of friction ridge patterns appeared.
This took the form of an illustrated paper presented by Dr. Nehemiah Grew (16411712) to the Royal Society in London in 1684. At about the same time, the Italian
professor Marcello Malpighi (1628-94) (after whom the Malpighian layers of the skin
are named) published his work De Externo Tactus Organo (1686), which contained
some information concerning the function of friction skin.
Almost two centuries elapsed before the potential use of friction skin as a means of
identifying an individual was recognised. In a communication to the scientific journal
Nature on October 28, 1880, Dr. Henry Faulds (1843-1930), a medical missionary
working in Japan, noted that:
“When bloody finger-marks or impressions of clay, glass, &c., exist, they may lead to
the scientific identification of criminals.”
In his wide-ranging letter, Faulds proceeded to report two separate cases in which he
was able to utilise finger-marks left at the crime scene (in one instance, sooty fingermarks on a white wall; in the other, greasy finger-marks on a glass) to assist the
Japanese police with their criminal investigations.
The appearance of his communication in Nature resulted in an almost immediate
contribution to the journal from Sir William Herschel (1833-1917) (November 25,
1880). In this, he cited his own use of fingerprints for the signature of contracts (as a
dependable method of individual identification) over the previous twenty years, whilst
serving as a colonial administrator in India. Furthermore, he asserted that fingermarks remained unchanged over that period of time. These communications gave rise
to considerable discussion over which of the two men should be recognised as the first
to appreciate the uniqueness of fingerprints and the role they might play in the
identification of individuals.
The next person to play a key role in the historical development of fingerprinting was
Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). His comprehensive research into the subject in the
late 19th century led to the publication of his classic book, Finger Prints, in 1892. In
this, he was able to clearly illustrate two of the fundamental principles of fingerprints;
namely that the pattern of an individual’s fingerprints was persistent over time and
that no two fingerprints were exactly the same. He also initiated a method of
classifying fingerprints, recognising three basic types of fingerprint pattern: whorls,
loops and arches.
Two years later, Sir Edward Richard Henry (1850-1931) (at that time Inspector
General of Police in Bengal, India; later to become Commissioner of the Metropolitan
Police, 1903-1918) used Galton’s observations as a basis to develop his own
fingerprint classification system. The Henry Classification System, as it became
known, was completed in 1897 and officially adopted in India that same year. This
replaced the previously used Bertillon system; a systematic procedure whereby a
series of anthropometric (body) measurements were taken, together with a detailed
description of the individual (the ‘portrait parlé’) and, more latterly, photographs. In
1901, following the recommendations of the Belper Commission, the Henry
Classification System was adopted by the newly created Fingerprint Branch at
Scotland Yard, and, with some modification, is still in use today in the majority of
English-speaking countries. It is worth noting that most Spanish-speaking countries
currently utilise a different fingerprint classification system, based on one that was
independently devised in Argentina in 1891 by Dr. Juan Vucetich (1858-1925).