Ridges and furrows the history of fingerprinting

There are records of fingerprints being taken many centuries ago, although they weren't nearly as sophisticated as they are today.

FingerprintingDuring the pyramid building era in Egypt about 4,000 years ago the earliest dated prints of the ridged skin on human hands and feet were made. Also found impressed in hardened mud at a 10,000-year old site in Egypt, is one small portion of palm print, not known to be human,

Fingerprints had been used as source of identification since the T'ang Dynasty in China, and in 8th century Japan - a thumbprint could suffice for a signature on legal documents. The first crime solved using fingerprints is sometimes stated to be a murder case that occurred in ancient Rome, where a bloody handprint was later found to be the match for the killer.

Although mainly of an anatomical nature, in the western world the first documented interest in the skin's ridges was a paper written in 1684 by Dr. Nehemiah Grew. There were also a small number of other academics from Europe who also made anatomical studies of the skin. However, It was not until 1798, that J C Mayer a German scientist theorised that fingerprints were unique.

In 1823 Johannes Evangelist Purkinje presented his thesis for Doctor of Medicine at the University of Breslau, Germany. He classified the papillary lines on the fingertips into nine types. This was a vital contribution becoming the basis for current manual systems of fingerprint classification. Purkinje's research was purely anatomical, and he made no mention of individuals being identified by the patterns that he described. However, he recommended further research, and others soon took up his challenge.

It was not until the late 19th century that fingerprints were used as a method for identifying criminals. In 1858, an Englishman named Sir William Herschel was working as the Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly district in Jungipoor, India. In order to reduce fraud, he had the residents record their fingerprints when signing business documents.

Dr Henry Faulds, a Scottish missionary doctor of the United Presbyterian Church probably made the greatest advances in fingerprint science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He 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. In 1880, Faulds wrote to his cousin, the famed naturalist Charles Darwin, and asked for help with developing a fingerprint classification system. Darwin declined, but forwarded the letter to his cousin, Sir Francis Galton.

English scientist Sir Francis Galton was a eugenicist who collected measurements on people around the world to determine how traits were inherited from one generation to the next. He began collecting fingerprints and eventually gathered some 8,000 different samples to analyse. In 1892, he published a book called "Fingerprints," in which he outlined a fingerprint classification system - the first in existence. The system was based on patterns of arches, loops and whorls. Although Galton's work proved to be sound and became the foundation of modern fingerprint science and technology, his approach to classification was inadequate, and it was to be others who were to successfully apply his work.

Faulds wrote a letter to Nature in October 1880, in which he related how he took many sets of fingerprints and palm prints and studied them. He 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. This technique, still in use today, appears to be a botanical technique called nature printing. The most important conclusion made by Faulds 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".

Around the same time, Juan Vucetich, an Argentinean police officer in Buenos Aires, was developing his own variation of a fingerprinting system. This system was put into practice in September 1891and in March 1892; Vucetich was called in to assist with the investigation of two boys murdered in Necochea, a village near Buenos Aires. Suspicion had fallen initially on a man named Velasquez, a love interest of the boys' mother, Francisca Rojas. But when Vucetich compared fingerprints found at the murder scene to those of both Velasquez and Rojas, they matched Rojas' exactly. She confessed to the crime. This was the first time fingerprints had been used in a criminal investigation. Vucetich called his system comparative dactyloscopy. It's still used in many Spanish-speaking countries.

Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police of London, Sir Edward Henry who had been given tuition in fingerprints by Galton, soon became interested in using fingerprints to catch criminals. In 1896, he added to Galton's technique, creating his own classification system based on the direction, flow, pattern and other characteristics of the friction ridges in fingerprints. In 1900 Henry published his book Classification and Uses of Fingerprints.

Henry was appointed Assistant Commissioner of Police at New Scotland Yard in 1901 and began to introduce his fingerprint system into that institution. By the end of the year, the Fingerprint Office at New Scotland Yard was fully functional, the first British court conviction by fingerprints being obtained in 1902. Approximately 10 years after the publication of Henry's book, police forces and prison authorities throughout the English-speaking world were using his classification system.