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Outline of the History of Fingerprints

  • 7000 BC Jericho: Neolithic bricks from the ancient city were discovered to contain thumbprints of bricklayers. This information was reported in a modern publication in Archaeology of the Holy Land, a book researched and written by Dame K. Kenyon.
  • 3000 BC Northwest Europe at New Grange, Republic of Ireland, and Brittany, France: Artifacts have been found in these locations to contain carvings of fingerprints. Artifacts such as the inner burial chamber passages and tombs possess the images of fingerprint ridges. Although some say that the prints were coincidentally placed on the artifacts by the artisans, the Stockis theory states that the placement of prints was intentional.
  • 1955-1913 BC Babylon (Hammurabi): It is said that fingerprints were used to seal contracts.

AD 600-700 Ancient China: Kia Kung-Yen, a Chinese historian of the Tang period, mentions fingerprints being used to seal contracts and legal documents. Yung-Hwui, a law book, specified that in order to divorce a husband must present a document giving the reasons for the action. All letters must be in his handwriting, but if unable to write, he must sign with his fingerprints. It is also said that sales of children were to be sealed with their sole and handprints.

From the history, we can see that there was curiosity and possibly a purposeful focus on fingerprints, but the modern era of the development of fingerprints and the research exacted its place in history. The following outlines those pioneers in the field of fingerprints, and their contributions, whether they were of limited or enormous value.

  • 1684 Dr. Nehemiah Grew, a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and a plant morphologist, commented on the ridge formations of the fingers. He is seen as the first pioneer to study and describes sweat pores, epidermal ridges and furrows, and their various arrangements on both the hands and feet. His works also included publications with accurate drawings. Dr. Grew died in 1712.
  • 1686 Marcello Malpighi, a professor of anatomy at the University of Bologna, Italy, and a contemporary of Grew, took up his own studies and with the aid of a new device, the microscope, conducted his own research. He wrote many treatises on the palmar surfaces. His papers were primarily focused on function, form, and structure of the friction skin as a tactile organ and its use in the enhancement of traction for walking and grasping. He is credited with noting diverse figures on the palmar surfaces which appeared to be loops and spirals. For his research, and in recognition of his contributions, a layer of skin was named in his honor, the Malpighian layer, which is located on the stratum mucosum or the lower (inner) portion of the epidermal layer of skin. Malpighi failed to pursue further research in this area, and the developments he pioneered fell silent for more than one hundred years.
  • 1788 J.C.A. Mayer, a German scientist, became the first to expound on the theory that the arrangement of skin ridges is never duplicated in two individuals. “Although the arrangements of skin ridges are never duplicated in two persons, nevertheless the similarities are closer among some individuals. In others the differences are marked, yet in spite of their peculiarities of arrangement all have a certain likeness.”
  • 1823 Johannes Purkinje (or John Evangelist Purkinje or Jonnes Evangelista Purkinje), a Prussian, published a thesis in which he described friction ridge patterns and classified the fingerprints, dividing them into nine categories and laying down the rules for their interpretation. This was the first time prints were classified into patterns. Four basic patterns emerged: arch, tent, loop, and whorl.
  • 1858 Sir William Herschel, British chief administrative officer of the Hooghly District, Bengal, India, is credited with the first known official use of fingerprints on a large scale. He required natives to affix their fingerprints as well as signatures to contracts. In 1877, Herschel submitted a request to the Home Office to use fingerprints extensively throughout India. Although his request was denied, Herschel implemented the first wide-scale use of fingerprints throughout his province in India. He failed, however, to establish an effective fingerprint classification system. Herschel also published an article in 1880 after reading articles by Dr. H. Faulds which led to allegations of plagiarism.
  • 1880 Dr. Henry Faulds, a Scottish medical missionary who spent a year in India, later traveled to Japan and arrived in March of 1874. He set up a hospital in Tsuki, Tokyo. He suggested the use of fingerprints not only for identification, but also for criminal investigation and is credited with making the earliest known identification from a crime scene. He claimed two cases, one to convict and one to exonerate. It is also said that Faulds recommended the use of printer’s ink for known fingerprint recording. Printer’s ink is still used today to record many fingerprints.
  • 1882 Gilbert Thompson, of the U.S. Geological Survey, recorded his own prints to prevent their forgery on commissary orders. This was the first such known use of fingerprints in the United States.
  • 1882 Alphonse Bertillon devised anthropometry (also known as Bertillonage) while a clerk in the Paris Police Identification Bureau. Later named head of Surete Nationale, his system of identification was adopted throughout France. Bertillon claimed one of the first identifications using his system in February 20, 1883. A man named Martin was attempting to pass himself off as Dupont. Bertillon’s system of body measurements was supplemented by the presence of fingerprints registered on the rear of his anthropometry cards, which are alleged to have led to more identifications than his system of anthropometry.
  • 1883 Mark Twain: In his book Life on the Mississippi, Twain refers to the identification of a murderer by his thumbprint. Ten years later in another book, Pudd’nhead Wilson, a theme centered on a fingerprint identification demonstrated during a court trial in which the infallibility of fingerprint identification was espoused. What is remarkable about this notation is its date and Twain’s knowledge of fingerprints.
  • 1891 Juan Vucetich (Dr. Ivan Vucetich) was employed as a sta tistician with the Central Police Department, La Plata, Argentina. He was ordered to set up the Bertillonage system. He read an article by pioneer Francis Galton, formulated his own identification system, and implemented the system in September 1891. His system became known as “Vucetichissimo.” Subsequently, he was ordered to discard his system and revert back to Bertillonage. Fortunately in 1896, before the revision could take place, Argentina abandoned Bertillonage and Vucetichissimo was retained. Vucetich’s system is still used in South America. Vucetich claimed to make one of the first criminal identifications in 1892 in La Plata, Argentina.
  • 1892 Sir Francis Galton, a British anthropologist and cousin of Darwin, began observations that led to the publication of “Finger Prints.” This publication was the first on fingerprints. In it, Galton made the statement that fingerprints remain unchanged for life and they are permanent. He also devised the first scientific method of classifying fingerprint patterns into arches, loops, and whorls. Galton also pointed out ridge characteristics and described a method for taking prints. In recognition of the contributions by Galton, ridge characteristics were named in his honor and today are known as “Galton” details.
  • 1893 Troup Committee (England) investigated fingerprinting and officially adopted it as a supplementary system of identification in 1894. In 1901, the “Belper Commission,” recommended the use of the Henry Classification System, which was introduced at Scotland Yard.
  • 1901 Sir Edward Henry made the official introduction of and the use of fingerprints for criminal identification at Scotland Yard. Henry, Herschel’s successor in India, used fingerprints on payrolls. He also wrote “Classification and Uses of Fingerprints,” published in England in 1901. Henry was appointed assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard in 1901 and is credited with developing and instituting a manual fingerprint system used worldwide today. However, this feat was not accomplished without controversy. It is said that Henry covertly gave his name to the classification system worked out by his Indian employees Khan Bahadur Azizul Haque and Rai Bahadur Hem Chandra

Bose. It was reasoned that as the English official in charge, he supported and encouraged his staff and should be ultimately responsible for the system. The action taken by Henry has been cause of resentment by some.

  • 1902 Dr. Henry P. De Forest: Dr. De Forest is responsible for the first large-scale documented instance of fingerprints being used as a systematic method of identification in the United States. Dr. De Forest installed the system to prevent cheating by applicants for the New York Civil Service Commission. The system was installed in December 1902.
  • 1903 Captain James Parke: The New York State prison system installed the first systematic use of fingerprints in the United States for use in identification of criminals. The system was officially adopted in June 1903.
  • 1904 Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas/St. Louis, Missouri: Both the U.S. Penitentiary at Ft. Leavenworth and the St. Louis police department established fingerprint bureaus.
  • 1904 Sgt. John K. Ferrier accompanied the Crown jewels to the St. Louis World’s fair where he also instructed American police in the Henry system. Subsequently, a young woman named Mary Holland, who was a student learning the Henry system, went throughout the United States teaching the Henry system to many law enforcement agencies. This is a significant development, as the presence of women in law enforcement during this period was an unusual occurrence. Mary Holland is said to have been one of the strongest proponents of the Henry system and single-handedly was responsible for the accelerated acceptance of the Henry system throughout the United States.
  • 1905 U.S. Army: Adoption of a fingerprint system began and was completed in 1906. This marks the first official use by the military in the United States. Over the next three years, the Navy and Marines would also develop and implement their own fingerprint systems.
  • 1924 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI): The identification division was developed and instituted in 1924 with the files drawn from the records at Ft. Leavenworth, as was the National Bureau of Criminal Identification, which consisted of many submissions by police departments throughout the country to the FBI.
  • 1933 FBI: The FBI established a latent fingerprint section for making technical examinations of latent prints or of inked prints on an individual basis. A civil identification section was also established that same year.

1974 Golden Anniversary of the FBI Identification Division:

This is the world’s largest repository of fingerprints.

  • 1980 Development of various automated fingerprint identification systems (AFISs): Throughout the world, technology met fingerprints, and various types of “AFIS” systems began making their appearance with various law enforcement agencies. With the advent of AFISs, the process of filing and searching of fingerprints was considerably shortened. What used to take months now was completed in minutes. The manual method of identification, classification, filing, and searching was giving way to a more accelerated method of identification.
  • 2000 and Beyond: The speed and accuracy of the various AFISs being used worldwide would only increase. As employees became more familiar with the operating systems, the ability to solve crimes and make identifications became astounding. The issue of disparate operating systems posed significant issues in that the various systems could not interface due to proprietary issues. The FBI, in establishing a super-AFIS, mandated that the new Integrated AFIS (IAFIS) be capable of interfacing with all current AFISs. That mandate has been a reality for several years.
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