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History of Fingerprinting

The fact that fingerprints can help the law enforcement agencies solve intriguing cases of crime is quite fascinating, and so is the history of this practice.
Abhijit Naik Jul 7, 2019
One of the most fascinating aspects of forensic science, fingerprint identification plays a crucial role in providing a breakthrough in some of the most intriguing cases of crime. Each human being has a unique fingerprint pattern, which serves as an identification mark for that particular person.
This helps the law enforcement agencies to find and nab the criminals based on the fingerprints they find on the crime scene. The practice of identifying humans on the basis of their fingerprints has come a long way, and its fascinating history is the evidence of that.
Earlier, the police officials would collect fingerprints and analyze them manually―a practice which took several days. Today, fingerprints are just scanned and fed into computers, which, in turn, analyzes them in a jiffy. Given here are some information which will shed light on how the technique developed over the period.

First Use of Fingerprints

The use of fingerprints for identification can be traced back to around 1885 - 1913 B.C.E., wherein fingerprints were taken on wet clay tablets as a proof for the validity of business transactions in Babylonia.
A similar process was followed in China in 246 B.C.E., however, the impressions were taken on a paper after dipping the fingers in ink, instead of clay. Other cultures also accepted the trend of using fingerprints as signatures to validate documents in order to reduce the instances of fraud.

Fingerprinting in Forensic Science

Though the practice can be traced back to several centuries, the use of fingerprints in forensic science only began in the 19th century. In 1858, an English administrator in India, Sir William Herschel introduced the practice of taking palm prints of the local residents with the intention of reducing the number of frauds in business deals.
As the practice continued, the palm prints were replaced by thumb prints, and the same was introduced in other departments; the most important one being the law enforcement agency.

Introduction of Fingerprints Classification System

In 1874, Dr Henry Faulds, a Scottish missionary working in Japan, realized that fingerprint patterns didn't change. He put forth that the sophisticated pattern of fingerprints of individuals was not susceptible to alterations due to superficial injuries.
On the behest of Faulds and Charles Darwin, Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton took the responsibility of developing a fingerprint classification system. He collected around 8000 fingerprint samples and analyzed them, before finally coming up with a book titled Fingerprints, wherein he introduced the system of fingerprints classification, in 1892.

First Use of Fingerprints to Solve a Case

While Sir Francis Galton was working on fingerprints classification, an Argentine police officer, Juan Vucetich was working on the possibility of using fingerprints to nab criminals. He referred to this process of identifying the fingerprints as 'comparative dactyloscopy'.
In 1892, he was working on a case involving the murder of two boys. The prime suspect was the lover of the victims' mother. However, Vucetich's investigations revealed that the fingerprints found on the crime scene were those of the mother herself, and not her lover as suspected. This was the first use of fingerprints to solve a mystery.

Henry Classification System

The then commissioner of the Metropolitan Police of London, Sir Edward Henry was quite inspired by the fact that fingerprints could be used as evidence to nab criminals. He put this practice to use in his area of jurisdiction, and simultaneously began working on his own classification system based on Sir Galton's classification system.
He realized that the basic characteristics of fingerprint ridges like the direction, flow, and pattern could make it easier to distinguish one fingerprint sample from another.
This made the Henry classification system the most preferred method of fingerprint classification in the world. By 1901, Scotland Yard had its own Fingerprints Bureau, which only specialized in fingerprint identification.
The advent of computers in 1970s made fingerprinting even easier, as the electronic process took less time and produced accurate matches. The Japanese National Police Agency introduced the first electronic fingerprint matching system, the Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS), in 1980s.
This integrated several law enforcement agencies across the world, thus making it possible to match the fingerprints found on the crime scene with millions of fingerprint samples across the world.
In 1999, the Criminal Justice Information Services Division of FBI introduced the Integrated AFIS (IAFIS), a more sophisticated system of fingerprint identification, which has the ability to search and match fingerprints across the world in mere 30 minutes.