Write About it Wednesday: The Race to Fingerprints

“I look forward to a time when every convict shall have prints taken of his fingers by the prison photographer, at the beginning and end of his imprisonment, and a register made of them; …”

Why do all great inventions have a battle ongoing between who invented or created something first? It’s fascinating but only extensive research leads us to the “right” answer. I have taken quite a few criminal justice classes and fingerprinting is covered quickly and without historical significance. My need to know brain can’t accept that. Every time I dive into the history of crime there are fifteen new questions or ideas to look into further.

In my opinion (aka this blog post), four people are key to the background of fingerprinting. William James Herschel was given charge of a subdivision in Bengal, India during British rule. In an attempt to prevent contract disputes, he demanded his contractors to stamp their hand on contracts to ensure the signature could not be denied. It was common in this time period for workers to declare their signatures fraudulent in order to get out of work for the British. He also introduced the idea of using two fingerprints on leases for authenticity. This was not a new concept nor widely accepted.


The second is Henry Faulds. He was a doctor, lecturer and missionary who stumbled upon ancient pottery with minute patterns of parallel lines. This peaked his interest in fingerprints and he began inking thousands of subjects’ fingers, requiring all ten for research. He used the fingerprints to prove the innocence of two of his staff members for separate crimes where a fingerprint was found at the scene. He set out to prove that fingerprints a) stay the same throughout your life and b) are unique to the individual. Fauld wrote a letter to the scientific magazine, Nature, and it was the first scientific literature to suggest the basic concepts of fingerprints for identification. It was not well received and his letters to police departments across the world were left unanswered.

Thirdly, we have Alphonse Bertillon who was eager to see his method of identification rule the world. He had a woman to impress and that seems to lend motivation to most men. He used eleven separate body measurements for identification of habitual criminals. His original proposal was refused because it was poorly written and the police had little faith in new scientific discoveries. He was given a three month window of opportunity to show that his system could work. He was successful and the success continued to grow as time went on. His identification system aided the new Relegation Law in France that focused on increasing the punishment for repeat offenders.


In walks our fourth key player, the man that takes credit for all of it. A person that I will be researching more thoroughly because I hate when men steal credit from others. I will not outright bash the man before I’ve done my research but what little I have found does not bode well for his character. Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin, wants to build a genetically superior race of men. Did this instantly make you think Hitler? Because I did. He decides to utilize Bertillon’s measurements for his new race and stumbles upon the research of Faulds to assist in identification. Instead of corresponding with Faulds (he believed him to be of lower class) he worked with Herschel to develop his lecture, “Personal Identification and Description.” He had worked with the Herschel family previously on his research of heredity, and believed him to be of the elite class of thinkers. He did mention Faulds but only in passing and after he quoted several descriptions of Herschel’s research. Galton published his comprehensive book, Finger Prints, in 1892. Galton did not relish in his success though because of the lack of relevance of prints to his eugenic studies. The promotion for identification fell to Herschel who wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Government of Bengal along with a copy of Galton’s book.

This story is going to stay with me for quite some time. I do not understand why I’ve never heard of Galton and how this could have unfolded with so little credit to Faulds. And yet again, India is brought into the mix. India under British rule seems to be following my every move. There is a story for me to write if I will just sit down and do it. I know this is only a short overview but what are your opinions? Do you think Faulds was cheated? Would you like to hear more of the story? 

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2 thoughts on “Write About it Wednesday: The Race to Fingerprints

  1. Nice write-up. It was the failure of Bertillon’s Anthropometric System and simultaneous dependence on Fingerprints for the foolproof fixation of personal identity. With William West & Will West case, where all their Anthropometric measurements were same, their facial feature, body structure were same except their Fingerprints. One was a hardcore criminal while the other was innocent.
    Furthermore, Galton used the notes prepared by William Herschel and Dr Henri Faulds. Faulds was the first person to propound the use of Fingerprints for personal identification. Besides that he also introduced black printers ink for fingerprinting.
    We should not undermine the contributions of two Indian Police Officers, Hem Chandra Bose and Azizul Haque who basically invented classification formula which was forwarded to a Committee by Edward Richard Henry, the then Inspector General of Police, Bengal, India. The formula was later known as Henry Classification formula and which is still being used where AUTOMATED FINGERPRINT IDENTIFICATION SYSTEM(AFIS) has not been introduced.

    Liked by 2 people

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