A History of Fingerprinting

It took about a century to create a viable identification system which could deal with masses of information efficiently. For years the ability to identify people through their fingerprints remained simply a dream. Thanks though to the work of many pioneers, including Sir William Herschel, Henry Faulds, Francis Galton, Juan Vucetich and Sir Edward Henry, this dream eventually became a reality.

Human knowledge of fingerprints is not new. In Asia, Europe and North America there are cave paintings which feature fingerprints, possibly showing authorship and/or identity. In China there is evidence of fingerprint impressions made in clay which were then used for official documents. While the archaeological material can be dated to the 7th Century, additional evidence suggests that this practice occurred as early as the period of the Han Dynasty (220 BC – 202 BC- so to put this in context, Rome was not even an empire at this period.) In the medieval period, some wax seals from the Holy Roman Empire bore deep fingerprints, usually three in a line.

Prior to fingerprint identification, identity science was pretty limited. In a world changed by the industrial revolution, many people were moving from the countryside to the city, as well as moving up and down the social scale. The result was that it created a society of strangers, and as such made it very difficult to identify people based purely on the knowledge of the local community. It became increasingly important to find ways to identify those with a criminal record, since brandings had gone out of fashion, and society feared the ‘habitual criminal’, i.e. those believed to have been born to be a criminal and would create mass havoc for the law-abiding citizens. At first, body marks (such as moles, birthmarks, freckles and scars) were used as the primary identifiers. However, it was quickly realised that it was quite easy to misidentify people as human memory is surprisingly rather terrible at actually remembering things. For example in Bangor, Maine, USA, in 1849 the parents of Luther Hause misidentified a man who they believed to be their son as the imposter was able to show scars on his knee, chest and neck which were what the Hauses could remember about their son.

Ideas to identify people could be pretty strange. For example, the use of phrenology (the deduction of personality and characteristics from the lumps and bumps of the skull which were supposedly responsible for specific character traits) and scent prints were both legitimate suggestions.

In the late 19th century, Alphonse Bertillon created an identification system which was quickly adopted around the world. His system involved eleven precise measurements of the individual. Some of the measurements he took included the height, the head breadth, the left little finger, cheek width and left foot length chosen for their ability to not change due to weight. The coded descriptions, which involved vast amounts of information about the individual, were taken and included alongside the measurements with two photos on ‘Bertillon’ cards.

Fingerprinting was developed around the same time at turn of the century and became the accepted system of identification. Bertillon’s measurement system was simply too complex and required considerable training, which many police departments had neither the time nor the money for. Bertillon required a level of precision which a lot of ‘Identification clerks’ did not bother to adhere to. They would often measure in imperial units rather than metric (which Bertillon required for precision) so measurements changed from country to country thus creating inconsistencies. (The stereotype for Napoleon being a short angry man is completely false. Angry yes, short no. The French inch was much bigger than its English equivalent.) By contrast, fingerprinting only required painting the individual’s fingers and thumbs with a special ink designed to make fingerprints more visible. They were then pressed onto paper and sent to a specialist. Ta-dah! The individual was now in the system. The main problem was creating a viable system which could easily identify a set of fingerprints from a figurative ocean of millions.

The systems for fingerprinting were created in India and Argentina in the late 19th Century. In India, some British officials were paranoid about the potential for Indians to commit fraud (fraud being seen as the worst crime), as well as the possibility for individuals to assume the identity of dead persons. In Argentina, crime and mass immigration were the main problems, because officials did not know whether the new immigrants were ‘habitual criminals’. In the late 19th century, Bertillonage was seen as the most sophisticated system whereas fingerprinting was deemed only suitable for the colonies because there were no natives who had the necessary skills for Bertillonage (Racism was a considerable factor in this). Galton was the first to develop the fingerprinting system. He based his 3-point identification system on the work collected by Sir William J. Herschel, whose collection began in 1857 when he aggressively forced a building supplier to place his handprint on the back of a contract to avoid being swindled. Unfortunately, his system was not actually viable but luckily he inspired others. Vucetich and Henry both developed their systems from Galton’s and they both managed to create a fully functioning system which could cope with large amounts of data. This meant that it was finally possible to identify a person through a biological presence which was unique for each individual.

Bethany Dale