Chapter from The Fingerprint Sourcebook
100 Years of Fingerprint History
published the the Swiss Federal Police
Updated 26 March 2017
Why Fingerprint Identification?
Fingerprints offer a reliable means of personal identification. That is the essential explanation for fingerprints having replaced other methods of
establishing the identities of persons reluctant to admit previous arrests. 1
The science of fingerprint identification stands out among all other forensic sciences for many reasons, including the following:
Has served governments worldwide for over 100 years to provide accurate
identification of criminals. No two fingerprints have ever been found alike in many billions of human and automated computer comparisons. Fingerprints are the basis for
criminal history foundation at every police agency on earth.
Established the first forensic professional organization, the International
Association for Identification (IAI), in 1915.
Established the first professional certification program for forensic scientists,
the IAI's Certified Latent Print Examiner (CLPE) program (in 1977), issuing certification to those meeting stringent criteria and revoking certification for serious errors such as
Continues to expand as the premier method for identifying persons, with
hundreds of thousands of persons daily added to fingerprint repositories
For more than a century, has remained the most commonly used forensic evidence worldwide - in most jurisdictions
fingerprint examination cases match or outnumber all other forensic examination casework combined. Fingerprints harvested from crime "scenes lead to more suspects and
generate more evidence in court than all other forensic laboratory techniques combined.
Is relatively inexpensive for solving crime. Expense is an
important factor because agencies must balance investigative
resources to best satisfy
timeliness and thoroughness, without sacrificing accuracy.
For example, DNA is as ubiquitous as fingerprints at most crime
scenes, but costs typically 100 to 400 times more than
fingerprint analysis for each specimen, and can require additional
months or years before analysis is complete. Thus,
fingerprints and DNA are harvested from serious crimes such as
murder, but often fingerprints are the primary evidence
harvested from burglaries, vehicle break-ins, etc.
Other visible human characteristics,
such as facial features, tend to change with age, but fingerprints are
relatively persistent. Barring injuries or surgery causing deep scarring, or
diseases such as leprosy damaging the formative layers of friction ridge skin, finger and palm
print features have never been shown to move about or change their unit relationship throughout the life of a person
(and injuries, scarring and diseases tend to exhibit telltale indicators
of unnatural change).
In earlier civilizations, branding
or maiming were used to mark persons as criminals. The thief was deprived of the hand which
committed the thievery. Ancient Romans employed the tattoo needle to identify and prevent desertion of mercenary soldiers from their ranks.
Before the mid-1800s, law enforcement officers with extraordinary visual memories, so-called "camera eyes," identified previously arrested offenders by
sight alone. Photography lessened the burden on memory, but was not the answer to the criminal identification problem. Personal appearances change.
Around 1870, French anthropologist Alphonse Bertillon devised a system to measure and record the dimensions of certain bony parts of the body. These
measurements were reduced to a formula which, theoretically, would apply only to one person and would not change during his/her adult life.
The Bertillon System was
generally accepted for thirty years. But the anthropometric
measurement system never recovered from the events of 1903, when a
man named Will West was sentenced to the US Penitentiary at
Leavenworth, Kansas. It was discovered there was already a prisoner at the penitentiary, whose Bertillon
measurements were nearly the same, and his name was William West.
Upon investigation, there were indeed two men who looked
very similar. Their names were William and Will West. Their Bertillon measurements were close
enough to identify them as the same person. However, fingerprint comparisons
quickly and correctly determined they were two different people. (According
to prison records publicized years later,
the West men were apparently identical twin brothers and each had a record of correspondence with the same immediate family relatives.)
Ancient artifacts including carvings similar to friction ridge skin have been discovered in many places throughout the world. Picture writing of a
hand with ridge patterns was discovered in Nova Scotia. In ancient Babylon, fingerprints were used on clay tablets for business transactions.
BC 200s - China
Chinese records from the Qin Dynasty
(221-206 BC) include details about using handprints as evidence during burglary
Clay seals bearing friction ridge impressions were used during both the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC - 220 AD).
AD 1400s - Persia
The 14th century Persian book "Jaamehol-Tawarikh" (Universal History), attributed to
Khajeh Rashiduddin Fazlollah Hamadani (1247-1318), includes
comments about the practice of identifying persons from their
In a "Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London" paper in 1684, Dr. Nehemiah Grew was the first European to
publish friction ridge skin observations.
Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo's 1685 book, "Anatomy of the Human Body" also described friction ridge skin (papillary ridge) details.
In 1686, Marcello Malpighi, an anatomy professor at the University of Bologna, noted fingerprint ridges, spirals and loops in his treatise. A layer of skin was named after him; "Malpighi" layer, which is approximately 1.8 mm thick.
No mention of friction ridge skin uniqueness or permanence was made by Grew, Bidloo or Malpighi.
1788 - Mayer
German anatomist and doctor J. C. A. Mayer
wrote the book Anatomical Copper-plates with Appropriate Explanations
containing drawings of friction ridge skin patterns. Mayer wrote,
“Although the arrangement of skin ridges is 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” (Cummins and Midlo, 1943, pp
12–13). Mayer was the first to declare that friction ridge skin is unique.
1823 - Purkinje
In 1823, Jan Evangelista Purkinje, anatomy professor at the University of Breslau, published his thesis discussing nine fingerprint patterns.
Purkinje also made no mention of the value of fingerprints for personal identification.
Purkinje is referred to in most English language publications as John
1856 - Welcker
German anthropologist Hermann Welcker of the
University of Halle, studied friction ridge skin permanence by printing
his own right hand in 1856 and again in 1897, then published a study in
1858 - HerschelThe English first began using fingerprints in July of 1858, when Sir William James Herschel, Chief
Magistrate of the Hooghly district in Jungipoor, India, first used fingerprints on native contracts. On a whim, and without thought toward personal identification, Herschel had
Rajyadhar Konai, a local businessman, impress his hand print on a contract.
The purpose was was to "... to frighten [him] out of all thought of repudiating his signature." The native was suitably impressed, and Herschel made a habit
of requiring palm prints--and later, simply the prints of the right Index and Middle fingers--on every contract made with the locals. Personal contact with the document, they
believed, made the contract more binding than if they simply signed it. Thus, the first wide-scale, modern-day use of fingerprints was predicated, not upon scientific evidence,
but upon superstitious beliefs.
Herschel's fingerprints recorded over a period of 57 years
As his fingerprint collection grew, however, Herschel began to note that the inked impressions could, indeed, prove or disprove identity. While his
experience with fingerprinting was admittedly limited, Sir William Herschel's private conviction that all fingerprints were unique to the individual, as well as permanent
throughout that individual's life, inspired him to expand their use.
1863 - Coulier Professor Paul-Jean Coulier, of Val-de-Grâce in Paris, published his observations that
(latent) fingerprints can be developed on paper by iodine fuming, explaining how to preserve (fix) such developed impressions and mentioning the potential for identifying
suspects' fingerprints by use of a magnifying glass. 3, 4
1877 - Taylor
American microscopist Thomas Taylor proposed that
finger and palm prints left on any object might be used to solve crimes.
The July 1877 issue of The American Journal of Microscopy and Popular
Science included the following description of a lecture by Taylor:
Hand Marks Under the Microscope. - In a
recent lecture, Mr. Thomas Taylor, microscopist to the Department of
Agriculture, Washington, D.C., exhibited on a screen & view of the
markings on the palms of the hands and the tips of the fingers, and called
attention to the possibility of identifying criminals, especially
murderers, by comparing the marks of the hands left upon any object with
impressions in wax taken from the hands of suspected persons. In the case
of murderers, the marks of bloody bands would present a very favorable
opportunity. This is a new system of palmistry.
1870s-1880 - Faulds During the 1870s, Dr. Henry Faulds, the British Surgeon-Superintendent of Tsukiji Hospital in Tokyo,
Japan, took up the study of "skin-furrows" after noticing finger marks on specimens of "prehistoric" pottery. A learned and industrious man, Dr. Faulds not only recognized the
importance of fingerprints as a means of identification, but devised a method of classification as well.
In 1880, Faulds forwarded an explanation of his classification system and a sample of the forms he had designed for recording inked impressions, to Sir
Charles Darwin. Darwin, in advanced age and ill health, informed Dr. Faulds that he could be of no assistance to him, but promised to pass the materials on to his cousin,
Also in 1880, Dr. Henry Faulds published an article in the Scientific Journal, "Nature" (nature). He discussed fingerprints as a means of personal
identification, and the use of printers ink as a method for obtaining such fingerprints. He is also credited with the first fingerprint identification of a greasy fingerprint
left on an alcohol bottle.
1882 - Thompson
In 1882, Gilbert Thompson of the U.S. Geological Survey in New Mexico, used his own thumb print on a document to help prevent forgery. This is the
first known use of fingerprints in the United States. Click the image below to see a larger image of an 1882 receipt issued by Gilbert Thompson to "Lying Bob" in the
amount of 75 dollars.
1882 - Bertillon
Alphonse Bertillon, a clerk in the Prefecture of Police of at Paris, France, devised a system of classification, known as
anthropometry or the Bertillon System, using measurements of parts of the body. Bertillon's system included measurements
such as head length, head width, length of the middle finger, length of the left foot; and length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.
In 1888 Bertillon was made Chief of the newly created Department of Judicial Identity where he used anthropometry as the primary means of identification. He later introduced
Fingerprints, but relegated them to a secondary role in the category of special marks.
1883 - Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens)
In Mark Twain's book, "Life on the Mississippi", a murderer was identified by the
use of fingerprint identification. In a later book, "Pudd'n
Head Wilson", there was a dramatic court trial including fingerprint identification. A movie was made from this book in 1916
and a made-for-TV movie in 1984.
1888 - Galton
Sir Francis Galton, British anthropologist and a cousin of Charles Darwin, began his observations
of fingerprints as a means of identification in the 1880's.
1891 - Vucetich
Juan Vucetich, an Argentine Police Official, began the first fingerprint files based on Galton pattern types. At first, Vucetich included the Bertillon
System with the files.
Right Thumb Impression and Signature of Juan Vucetich
Alvarez & Galton
Aires, Argentina in 1892, Inspector Eduardo Alvarez made the first criminal fingerprint identification. He was able to identify Francisca Rojas, a woman who murdered her two sons and
cut her own throat in an attempt to place blame on another. Her bloody print was left on a door post, proving her identity as the murderer.
Alvarez was trained by Juan Vucetich.
Francisca Rojas' Inked Fingerprints
Sir Francis Galton published his book, "Finger
Prints" in 1892, establishing the individuality and permanence of fingerprints. The book included the first
published classification system for fingerprints. In 1893,
Galton published the book "Decipherment of Blurred Finger
Prints," and 1895 the book "Fingerprint Directories."
Galton's primary interest in fingerprints was as an aid in determining heredity and racial background. While he soon discovered that fingerprints offered
no firm clues to an individual's intelligence or genetic history, he was able to scientifically prove what Herschel and Faulds already suspected: that fingerprints do not change
over the course of an individual's lifetime, and that no two fingerprints are exactly the same. According to his calculations, the odds of two individual fingerprints being the
same were 1 in 64 billion.
Galton identified the characteristics by which fingerprints can be identified. A few of these same characteristics
(minutia) are basically still in use today, and are sometimes referred to as Galton Details.
1897 - Haque & Bose
On 12 June 1897, the Council of the Governor General of India approved a committee report
that fingerprints should be used for classification of criminal records. Later that year, the Calcutta (now Kolkata) Anthropometric Bureau became the world's first
Fingerprint Bureau. Working in the Calcutta Anthropometric Bureau (before it became the Fingerprint Bureau) were Azizul Haque
(shown above) and Hem Chandra Bose. Haque and Bose
are the two Indian fingerprint experts credited with primary development of the Henry System of fingerprint classification (named for their supervisor, Edward Richard
Henry). The Henry classification system is still used in English-speaking countries (primarily as the manual filing system for accessing paper archive files that have not
been scanned and computerized).
1900 - E.R. Henry
The United Kingdom Home Secretary Office conducted an inquiry
into "Identification of Criminals by Measurement and
Fingerprints." Mr. Edward Richard
Henry (later Sir ER Henry)
appeared before the inquiry committee to explain the system published in his recent book "The
Classification and Use of Fingerprints." The committee recommended adoption of fingerprinting as a replacement for the relatively inaccurate Bertillon system of
anthropometric measurement, which only partially relied on fingerprints for identification.
The Fingerprint Branch at New Scotland Yard (Metropolitan Police) was created in July 1901 using the Henry System of Fingerprint Classification.
First systematic use of fingerprints in the U.S. by the New York Civil Service Commission for testing. Dr. Henry P.
DeForrest pioneers U.S. fingerprinting.
In 1903, the New York City Civil Service
Commission, the New York State Prison System and the Leavenworth
Penitentiary in Kansas began using fingerprinting. In 1903, Will and
William West's fingerprints were compared at Leavenworth Penitentiary
after there were found to have the same Anthropometric measurements.
The use of fingerprints began
at the St. Louis Police Department. They
were assisted by a Sergeant from Scotland Yard who had been on duty at the St. Louis World's Fair Exposition guarding the British Display. Sometime after the St. Louis
World's Fair, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) created America's first national fingerprint repository, called the National Bureau of Criminal
U.S. Army begins using fingerprints.
U.S. Department of Justice forms the Bureau of Criminal Identification in Washington, DC to provide a centralized reference collection of fingerprint cards.
Two years later the U.S. Navy started, and was joined the next year by the Marine Corp. During the next 25 years more and more law enforcement agencies join in the use of
fingerprints as a means of personal identification. Many of these agencies began sending copies of their fingerprint cards to the National Bureau of Criminal Identification,
which was established by the International Association of Police Chiefs.
U.S. Navy begins using fingerprints.
U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Criminal Identification moves to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary where it is staffed at least partially by inmates.
U.S. Marine Corps begins using fingerprints.
In 1910, Frederick
Brayley published the first American textbook on fingerprints,
"Arrangement of Finger Prints, Identification, and Their Uses."
Inspector Harry H. Caldwell of the Oakland, California Police
Department's Bureau of Identification wrote numerous letters to "Criminal Identification Operators" in August 1915, requesting them to meet in Oakland for the purpose of forming
an organization to further the aims of the identification profession. In October 1915, a group of twenty-two identification personnel met and initiated the "International
Association for Criminal Identification" In 1918, the organization was renamed the
International Association for
Identification (IAI) due to the volume of non-criminal identification work performed by members. Sir Francis Galton's right index finger appears in the IAI logo.
The IAI's official publication is the Journal of Forensic Identification.
The IAI's 100th annual educational conference was held in Sacramento,
California, near the IAI's original roots.
Edmond Locard wrote that if 12 points (Galton's Details) were the same between two fingerprints, it would suffice as a positive identification5. Locard's 12 points seems to have been based on an unscientific "improvement" over the eleven anthropometric measurements (arm length, height, etc.) used to "identify" criminals
before the adoption of fingerprints.
In 1924, an act of congress established the Identification Division of the FBI. The IACP's National Bureau of Criminal
Identification and the US Justice Department's Bureau of Criminal Identification consolidated to form the nucleus of the FBI fingerprint files. During
the decades since, the FBI's fingerprint national
fingerprint support (both through Criminal Justice
Information Services and the FBI Laboratory) has been
indispensable in supporting American law enforcement.
By the end of World War II, most American
fingerprints experts agreed there was no scientific basis for a minimum
number of corresponding minutiae to determine an "identification" and the
twelve point rule was dropped from the FBI publication, "The Science
By 1946, the FBI had processed 100 million fingerprint cards in manually maintained files; and by 1971, 200 million cards.
With the introduction of automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) technology, the files were
later split into computerized criminal files and manually
maintained civil files. Many of the manual files were duplicates though, the records actually represented somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 million criminals, and
an unknown number (tens of millions) of individuals
represented in the civil files.
The International Association for
Identification Standardization Committee authored a resolution stating
identification is unique and no valid basis exists to require a minimum
number of matching points in two friction ridge impressions to establish a
positive identification. The resolution was approved by members at the
1973 annual conference.
In 1974, four employees of the Hertfordshire (United Kingdom) Fingerprint Bureau contacted fingerprint experts
throughout the UK and began organization of that country's first professional fingerprint organization, the National Society of Fingerprint Officers. The organization
initially consisted of only UK experts, but quickly expanded to international scope and was renamed
Society in 1977. The initials F.F.S. behind a fingerprint expert's name indicates they are recognized as a Fellow of the Fingerprint Society. The Society
hosts annual educational conferences with speakers and delegates attending from many countries.
At New Orleans, Louisiana on 1 August 1977, delegates to the 62nd Annual Conference of the International Association for Identification (IAI) voted to
establish the world's first certification program for fingerprint experts. Since 1977, the IAI's Latent Print Certification Board has proficiency tested thousands of applicants, and periodically proficiency tests all IAI Certified Latent Print Examiners
Contrary to claims (since the 1990s) that fingerprint experts profess their body of practitioners never make erroneous identifications, the Latent
Print Certification program proposed, adopted, and in-force since 1977, specifically recognizes such mistakes sometimes occur, and must be addressed by the Latent Print
During the past three decades, CLPE status has become a prerequisite for journeyman fingerprint expert positions in many US state and federal government
forensic laboratories. IAI CLPE status is considered by many identification professionals to be a measurement of excellence.
At the International Symposium on Latent
Fingerprint Detection and Identification, conducted by the Israeli
National Police Agency, at Neurim, Israel, June, 1995, the Neurim
Declaration was issued. The declaration, (authored by Pierre Margot and an
American fingerprint expert from the Army Crime Lab), states "No
scientific basis exists for requiring that a pre-determined minimum number
of friction ridge features must be resent in two impression in order to
establish a positive identification." The declaration was unanimously
approved by all present, and later, signed by 28 persons from the
following 11 countries: Australia, Canada, France, Holland, Hungary,
Isreal, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and United
INTERPOL's Automated Fingerprint Identification System repository exceeds 150,000 sets
of fingerprints for important international criminal records from 190
member countries. Over 170 countries have 24 x 7 interface ability with
2015 - The International
Association for Identification celebrated it's 100th
2017 - America's Largest Databases
The largest AFIS repository in America is operated by the Department of Homeland Security's US Visit Program, containing over 120 million persons'
fingerprints, many in the form of two-finger records. The US Visit Program has been migrating from two flat (not rolled) fingerprints to ten flat fingerprints since 2007.
"Fast capture" technology currently enables recording of ten simultaneous fingerprint impressions in as little as 15 seconds per person.
The largest criminal fingerprint AFIS repository in America is the FBI's Next Generation Identification (NGI) in Clarksburg, WV. NGI has more than 60
million individual computerized fingerprint records (both criminal and civil applicant records). NGI
is the FBI's most valuable service to American law
accurate and rapid fingerprint identification services.
FBI civil fingerprint files in NGI (mainly federal employees post-May 2000)
have become searchable by
US law enforcement agencies. Many enlisted military service member fingerprint cards received after 1990, and
most military-related fingerprint cards received after 19 May 2000, have been computerized and will be searchable.
The FBI is continuing to expand their automated identification activities to include other biometrics such as palm, face, and iris. Face search
capabilities in NGI are a reality for many US law enforcement agencies accessing NGI, and several are participating in iris pilot projects.
states and many large cities have their own AFIS databases, each with a subset of fingerprint records that is not stored in any other database. Many also store and search
palmprints. Law enforcement fingerprint interface standards are important to enable sharing records and reciprocal searches to identify criminals.
Interpol, the European Union's
Treaty, the FBI's Next Generation Identification
and other initiatives seek to improve cross-jurisdiction
sharing (probing and sharing/pushing) of important finger
and palm print data to identify criminals.
2017 - World's Largest Database
Authority of India is the world's largest
fingerprint (and largest multi-modal biometric) system
using fingerprint, face and iris
biometric records. India's Unique Identification
project is also known as Aadhaar, a word meaning "the foundation" in several Indian languages. Aadhaar is a voluntary program, with the goal of eventually
providing reliable national ID documents to most of
estimated India's 1.25 billion residents.
With a biometric database many times larger than any other in the world, Aadhaar's ability to leverage automated fingerprint and iris modalities (and potentially automated face
recognition) enables rapid and reliable automated searching and identification impossible to accomplish with fingerprint technology alone, especially when searching children and
elderly residents' fingerprints. As of
January 2017, the Authority
has issued more than 1.11 billion (more than 111 crore)
1 Some of the above wording is credited to the writing of Greg Moore, from his
previous fingerprint history page at http://www.brawleyonline.com/consult/history.htm (no longer there). Also, David
L. von Minden, Ph.D. helped correct typos his students kept cutting and pasting into their homework.
Interpol, "General Position on Fingerprint Evidence," by the Interpol European Expert
Group on Fingerprint Identification, at www.interpol.int/public/Forensic/fingerprints/WorkingParties/IEEGFI/ieegfi.asp#val3
Coulier, P.-J. Les vapeurs d'iode employees comme moyen de reconnaitre l'alteration des ecritures. In L'Annee
scientiJique et industrielle; Figuier, L. Ed.; Hachette, 1863; 8, pp 157-160 at http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k7326j (as
of March 2010).
Margot, Pierre and Quinche, Nicolas, "Coulier, Paul-Jean (1824-1890): A
Precursor in the History of Fingermark Detection and Their Potential Use for Identifying Their Source (1863)", Journal of forensic identification, 60 (2), March-April 2010, pp. 129-134,
(published by the International Association for Identification).
As of 2016, the term positive identification (meaning absolute certainty)
has been replaced in reports and testimony by most
agencies/experts with more accurate terminology, including variations of
wording such as the following:
Examination and comparison of
similarities and differences between the impressions resulted in the
opinion there is a much greater support for the impressions originating
from the same source than there is for them originating from different
There are sufficient features in
agreement to conclude the two areas of friction ridge impressions
originated from the same source. Identification of an impression to one
source is the decision that the likelihood the impression was made by
another (different) source is so remote it is considered as a practical
A related 2014 paper titled "Individualization
is dead, long live individualization! Reforms of reporting practices for
fingerprint analysis in the United States" by Simon Cole, Professor
at University of California, Irvine is
6 Herschel information
from a Fingerprint Identification presentation by T. Dickerson Cook at the
annual meeting of the Texas Division, International Association for
Identification, at Midland, Texas on 9 August 1954 (documented in
Identification News, April 1964, pages 5-10).
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS