Fingerprints are a reliable means of personal identification. This is the essential explanation for the fact that fingerprints have replaced other methods of identifying people who are reluctant to admit previous arrests.1
The science of fingerprint identification5 stands out among all other forensic sciences for many reasons, including the following:
Has served governments worldwide for over a century by providing accurate identification of persons. No two fingerprints have ever been found alike in many billions of human and automated computer comparisons. Fingerprints are the foundation for criminal history confirmation at police agencies worldwide.
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. The fingerprint discipline has never claimed forensic fingerprint experts (latent print examiners) are infallible. For over four decades, the IAI's certification program has been issuing certification to those meeting stringent criteria and revoking the certification for errors (quality assurance problems) such as erroneous identifications.
Continues to expand as the primary method for accurately identifying persons in government record systems, with hundreds of thousands of persons added daily to fingerprint repositories worldwide.
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.2"
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 many crime scenes, but can cost 100 to 400 times more than fingerprint analysis for each specimen, and can require additional months or years before analysis is complete. Thus, while both fingerprints and DNA are typically harvested from serious crimes such as sexual assault and murder, fingerprints are often the primary evidence collected from lesser crimes such as burglaries and vehicle break-ins.
Other visible human characteristics, such as facial features, change considerably 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 (cutting off hands or noses) 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.
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 it 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 that, in theory, would only apply to one person and would not alter over the course of his or her adult life. Bertillon also pioneered the concept of arrest photos (mugshots) taken simultaneously with bodily measurements and fingerprints.
The Bertillon System was generally accepted in many countries for the next three decades, however 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, it was determined there were two men who looked very similar. Their names were William and Will West. Their Bertillon measurements were similar enough to identify them as the same person. However, fingerprint comparisons quickly and correctly determined the biometrics (fingerprints and face) were from two different people. (According to prison records made public years later, the West men were apparently identical twins and each had a record of correspondence with the same immediate family relatives.)
Ancient artifacts with 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.
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 fingerprints.
In the "Philosophical Transactions of
the Royal Society of London" paper in 1684, Dr.
Nehemiah Grew was the first European to publish
friction ridge skin observations.
Table 4 from "Anatomy of the Human Body."
In 1686, Marcello Malpighi, an anatomy professor at the University of Bologna, (in Italy) noted fingerprint ridges, spirals and loops in his treatise. A layer of skin was named after him; the "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.
German anatomist Johann Christoph Andreas 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, pages 12-13). Mayer was the first to declare friction ridge skin is unique.
In 1823, Jan Evangelista Purkinje, anatomy professor at the University of Breslau, published his thesis discussing nine fingerprint patterns. Purkinje made no mention of the value of fingerprints for personal identification. Purkinje is referred to in most English language publications as John Evangelist Purkinje.
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 1898.
The purpose 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.
However as Herschel's fingerprint collection grew, he began to realize 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.
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 hands would present a very favorable opportunity. This is a new system of palmistry.
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 he could be of no assistance to him, but promised to pass the materials on to his cousin, Francis Galton.
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 recording such fingerprints. He is also credited with the first latent print identification - a greasy fingerprint deposited on an alcohol bottle.
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.
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.
A murderer was identified using fingerprint identification in Mark Twain's book "Life on the Mississippi." A dramatic court trial, including fingerprint identification, was depicted in a later book, "Pudd'n Head Wilson." This book was adapted into a movie in 1916, and a made-for-TV movie in 1984.
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.
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.
At Buenos 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.
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 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 named the characteristics by which fingerprints can be identified. A few of these same characteristics (minutiae) are still in use today, and are sometimes referred to as Galton Details. Most Galton Detail terms describing friction ridge skin and impression features have been abandoned in modern forensic science terminology.
On 8 May 1896, Dr. Ralph Hodgson gave a lecture on the value of fingerprint identification at the Sydney School of Arts in Sydney, Australia. The lecture included discussion of the great value of fingerprints and also the limited adoption of fingerprint records for identification by worldwide agencies already using Bertillon measurements. A diagram used in the lecture is shown above.9
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) voted in 1896 to create a Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) for collecting mugshots, fingerprints and descriptors of criminals. The IACP's BCI became operational in Chicago, Illinois between 1896 and 1897. In 1902, the BCI moved from Chicago to Washington, DC. (Jenkins, J. J. (1902).
On 12 June 1897, the Council of the Governor General of India approved a committee report that fingerprints should be used for the classification of criminal records. Later that year, the Kolkata (now Calcutta) Anthropometric Bureau became the world's first Fingerprint Bureau. Working in the Calcutta Anthropometric Bureau (before it became the Fingerprint Bureau) were Qazi Azizul Haque 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 many countries (primarily as the manual filing system for accessing paper fingerprint card archive files which have not been scanned and computerized).
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. It used the Henry System of Fingerprint Classification.
Dr. Henry Pelouze de Forest pioneered the first American use of fingerprints. The fingerprints were used to screen New York City civil service applicants.
In 1903, the New York City Civil Service Commission, the New York State Prison System and the Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas were using fingerprinting.
In 1903, Will and William West's fingerprints were compared at Leavenworth Penitentiary after they were found to have very similar Anthropometric measurements.
The use of fingerprints in America 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. After the St. Louis World's Fair, more and more US police agencies joined in submitting fingerprints to the International Association of Chiefs of Police Bureau of Criminal Identification in Washington, DC.
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.
U.S. Navy begins using fingerprints.
In 1907, the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ) Bureau of Criminal Identification moves from Washington, DC to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas where it is staffed at least partially by inmates. Suspicious of inmates involvement with the identification process, the International Association of Chiefs of Police BCI (still located in Washington, DC), refused to share with the DOJ BCI in Kansas. The lack of communication between local, state, and federal law enforcement presented great challenges at all levels in locating and identifying wanted criminals, especially those moving from state to state. The disconnect was not remedied until 1924.
U.S. Marine Corps begins
In 1910, Frederick Brayley published the first American textbook on fingerprints, "Arrangement of Finger Prints, Identification, and Their Uses."
Dr. Edmond Locard published his fingerprint
identification conclusions and the criteria that should be used to
ensure reliability based on a statistical analysis study in 1914.
His research revealed the following three-part rule, which can be
summarized as follows:
1. If more than 12 concurring points are present and the fingerprint is sharp, the certainty of identity is beyond debate.
2. If 8 to 12 concurring points are involved, then the case is borderline and the certainty of identity will depend on:
2.a. the sharpness of the fingerprints;
2.b. the rarity of its type;
2.c. the presence of the center of the figure [core] and the triangle [delta] in the exploitable part of the print;
2.d. the presence of pores [poreoscopy];
2.e. the perfect and obvious identity regarding the width of the papillary ridges and valleys, the direction of the lines, and the angular value of the bifurcations [ridgeology / edgeoscopy]. Dr. Locard also realized the value and the importance of, and rendered qualified conclusions to the identification process.
3.If a limited number of characteristic points are
present, the fingerprints cannot provide certainty for an identification,
but only a presumption proportional to the number of points available and
In 1914, Hakon Jrgensen with the Copenhagen, Denmark Police lectures about the distant identification of fingerprints at the International Police Conference in Monaco. The process involved encoding fingerprint features for transmission to distant offices facilitating identification through electronic communications. In 1916, the book "Distant Identification" is published and used in Danish police training. The NIST (NBS) 1969 technical note reviewing Jrgensen's system is online here. The 1922 English version of a book describing Jrgensen's "Distant Identification" system is online here.
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 to 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.
1923 - US Department of Justice Fingerprint Repository Returns to Washington, DC
Following a meeting between the US Attorney General and representatives of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the US Department of Justice Bureau of Criminal Identification fingerprint collection was transferred from Leavenworth Penitentiary back to Washington, DC, in October 1923.
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 of Fingerprints."
By 1946, the FBI had processed over 100 million fingerprint cards in files maintained manually. In 1947, the FBI's fingerprint repository was moved from the Washington DC Armory Building to a new building at 2nd and D Streets Southwest in Washington, DC.
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.
In 1963, the FBI's Latent Print Unit completed 9,668 latent print cases
from local, state and federal American law enforcement, including 76,309
specimens (evidence items) for latent print examination. The Latent Print
Unit identified suspects in 795 of the cases.
As of 1 May 1964, the FBI's Identification Division had more than 170 million fingerprint records (170,681,473 records), including almost 45 million criminal fingerprint records (44,926,750 criminal fingerprint records).
The International Association for Identification Standardization Committee authored a resolution stating that each 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 IAI 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 The Fingerprint Society in 1977. The initials F.F.S. behind a fingerprint expert's name indicates they were recognized as a Fellow of the Fingerprint Society. The Society hosts annual educational conferences with speakers and delegates attending from many countries. In 2017, The Fingerprint Society merged with The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (CSFS) and has since been known as the CSFS Fingerprint Division.
On 1 August 1977 at New Orleans, Louisiana, members attending 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 tested thousands of applicants, and periodically proficiency tests all IAI Certified Latent Print Examiners (CLPEs).
Contrary to assertions by some forensic science critics that fingerprint experts claim they never make erroneous identifications, the Latent Print Certification program active since 1977 has specifically recognized such mistakes sometimes occur and must be addressed.
During the past four 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 Ed German), states "No scientific
basis exists for requiring that a pre-determined
minimum number of friction ridge features must be
present 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, Israel,
New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and
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 INTERPOL expert fingerprint services.
2015 - The International Association for Identification celebrated it's 100th Anniversary
The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM was formerly US-VISIT), contains 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 the recording of ten simultaneous fingerprint impressions in as little as 15 seconds per person.
As of July 2018, the FBI's Next Generation Identification (NGI) conducts more than 300,000 tenprint record searches per day against more than 140 million computerized fingerprint records (both criminal and civil applicant records). The 300,000 daily fingerprint searches support 18,000 law enforcement agencies and 16,000 non-law enforcement agencies7. At 70% more accurate that the FBI's previous version of automated latent print technology, NGI is the FBI's most valuable service to American law enforcement, providing accurate and rapid fingerprint identification support.
FBI civil fingerprint files in NGI (primarily including federal employees and federal employment applicants) have become searchable by all US law enforcement agencies in recent years. Many enlisted military service member fingerprint cards received after 1990, and most (officer, enlisted and civilian) military-related fingerprint cards received after 19 May 2000, have been computerized and are searchable.
The FBI is continuing to expand their automated identification activities to include other biometrics such as palm, face, and iris. Direct face search capabilities in NGI are a reality for some US law enforcement agencies, and all others can submit faces to CBI CJIS' Face Services Unit by opening collaborative investigations through their supporting FBI offices.
Every state in the America, as well as many large cities, have their own AFIS databases, each with a subset of fingerprint records which are not stored in any other database. Palmprints are also stored and searched in many of these databases. Law enforcement fingerprint interface standards are important to enable sharing records and reciprocal searches to identify criminals.
Many European nations currently leverage multiple fingerprint information sharing operations, including the following: Schengen Information System (SIS); Visa Information System (VIS); European Dactyloscopy (EURODAC); and Europol. Additionally, a biometric-based Entry Exit System (EES) is in planning stages. Many other countries exchanges searches/fingerprint records in a similar manner as Europe, with automated and non-automated interfaces existing in accordance with national/international privacy laws and the urgency/importance of such searches.
Like most attempts to document history, this page strives to balance what happened first with what matters. The result does not mean this fingerprint history page (or any other historical account) is complete or entirely accurate. This page is maintained by an American fingerprint expert, biased by English language scientific journals and historical publications. Other countries' experts (especially from non-English language countries) may have completed important fingerprint-related scientific accomplishments before the above dates. Please email recommended changes and citations for those modifications to ed "at" onin.com.
Science is a set of provisional explanations, also known as hypotheses, which are updated as new evidence becomes available. For example, the 12-point rule for identifying fingerprints utilized in America during the early 1900s was abandoned by the FBI in the 1940s when it was realized 12 poor-quality points having relatively low specificity were less rare (had lower specificity) for "identification" than fewer very clear points having relatively rare shapes and unit relationships.
Nowadays, friction ridge science is improving to attempt to express subjective opinions with greater accuracy (not positive identification)... until evidence supports the next advancement, perhaps a well-validated algorithm stating likelihood ratios.
FBI, The CJIS Link; vol. 4, no. 23, page 10, by US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services Division, Fall 2000.
Jenkins, J. J. (1902).
National Bureau of Criminal Identification (No. 429). U.S.
House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary.
1 Moore, Greg; Some of the above wording is credited to Greg Moore, from his previous fingerprint history page at www.brawleyonline.com/consult/history.htm (no longer online).
Von Minden, David L.; provided input for this page involving typos his students kept cutting and pasting into their homework.3 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).
4 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).
5 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 sources.
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 linked here.6 Herschel information is 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, pp. 5-10).