History of Fingerprinting

Fingerprinting is the science of taking imprints of a person's fingers for the purpose of establishing personal identification. Forensic science has proven that the likelihood of two human beings having the same fingerprints is infinitesimal, and it has been concluded that the process of fingerprinting as a means of establishing personal identification is infallible.

It's a difficult proposition for historians to point to one moment in time and attest to that moment as the first instance of the fingerprinting process. For sure, there is evidence of fingerprints in ancient times, most notably during the building of the pyramids in Egypt in 2000 B.C. There are signs that, in the 3rd Century B.C., the Chinese utilized fingerprints as a testament on official documents. These fingerprints were also used in court litigation proceedings. However, William J. Hershel, who was the first person to implement the practical application of fingerprinting, took issue with the Chinese employment of fingerprinting because he felt that they used fingerprinting as part of a spiritual practice and not as a systematic identification of individuals, and he believed that the prints were fingermarks, not fingerprints. In Persia, around 1350, government papers had what appeared to be fingerprints on official documents, but nowhere were there any confirmations of the documented use of fingerprints for identification purposes up through this time.

Now, we return to the aforementioned Hershel who, in 1858, was an English administrator assigned to the jurisdiction of Hooghly near Calcutta, India. Hershel was concerned about the residents of Hooghly getting their pensions, and he was concerned about establishing veracity in court regarding business dealings with the Government. So, in 1858, he made a construction builder, by the name of Rajyadhar Konai, put a print of his palm and fingers on an official business transaction form since Mr. Konai could not write. For all intents and purposes, this became the first documented application of fingerprints. Hershel also had jurisdiction over the jails, and he systematically fingerprinted the inmates and kept records of all fingerprints on file.

A Scottish doctor by the name of Henry Faulds was a contemporary of Hershel, albeit a sworn enemy, as both men tried to solidify their place in history by claiming they each were the "Father of Fingerprinting." Faulds' body of work was impressive and valuable. While working in a hospital in Tokyo, Japan, in 1874, Faulds kept records of fingerprints and concluded that fingerprint patterns were unchangeable and immutable and that the technique of rendering a set of fingerprints could best be done with printer's ink on a smooth board. Faulds was also able to lift a fingerprint from a bottle of whiskey, and thus received credit for the first identification of a fingerprint.

The first evidence of the use of fingerprints in the United States was by a surveyor in New Mexico by the name of Gilbert Thompson who, in 1882, put his own prints on a survey to prevent forgery. The first recorded use of fingerprint identification in a criminal matter dates back to 1892 when an Argentinean Police Commodore by the name of Juan Vucetich took prints off a door post to nail a murderer. The use of fingerprint identification as a means of solving criminal cases advanced quickly as both Scotland Yard and the U.S.A. implemented the use of fingerprints by the turn of the 20th Century.

The use of fingerprinting became standard operating procedure in the United States and, in 1924, Congress endowed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) with the authority to establish an Identification Division. This centralized all fingerprinting files and made it much easier to identify repeat criminals and missing persons. Today the F.B.I. uses a computerized system to contain the fingerprints of some 34 million criminals. This is especially helpful because the recidivism rates are extremely high, except in those crimes of passion, such as manslaughter which generally is a non-repetitive crime.

Fingerprinting has been one of civilization's greatest developments, and its accuracy in attesting to the personal identification of criminals, missing persons, and the unknown deceased can not be disputed.