Fingerprinting - History of Fingerprinting


With over 7 billion people living on the earth today, the physical attributes used to describe a person are potentially shared by thousands of others. But there is one feature that is completely, and utterly unique: fingerprints. Fingerprints are the distinctive ridges located on each tip of a finger. They come in swirls, whorls, arches and loops, but each finger, and each person, has a unique pattern. When a fingertip touches a surface, sweat secretions from the finger allow for a temporary impression to be left on whatever surface was touched.

Today, crime scene investigators use fingerprinting as a marker to identify specific individuals associated with a crime. However, the use of fingerprints as evidence in a criminal investigation is a relatively new approach. In the second millennia BCE, fingerprints, which had previously only been used to decorate pottery and other art, upgraded to serve as signatures in the ancient world. Although, it was unlikely that these ancient peoples knew about the individual nature of fingerprints at the time they were used as signatures.

Around 1750 BCE, the Babylonian King introduced a law that required fingerprints be recorded for criminals. China followed this advance and began taking prints from criminals around 2 millennia after the Babylonians. But it wasn't until 600 CE that the Chinese realized that no two individuals have identical fingerprints. Unfortunately this knowledge did not spread west for a thousand years.

In Europe, it wasn't until the mid 1600s that many scientists and physicians even began studying fingertips patterns and ridges. It then took almost two hundred years of research before 1788 arrived and the German scientist, Johann Mayer, recognized what China had known for thousands of years; fingerprints are unique to individuals.

After this discovery, Dr. Henry Faulds published another notable publication discussing the usefulness of fingerprints in identifying a particular person. Faulds then worked relentlessly over the next twenty years trying to convince the police to take his work seriously. He even contacted Charles Darwin for advice! Darwin then passed on Faulds's work to his cousin, Francis Galton. Intrigued, Galton continued the research and discovered that there is a 1 in 64 billion chance of having two individuals with the same fingerprints!

With statistics now supporting Faulds's research, in 1901 he finally convinced the police force of the United Kingdom to use fingerprinting as a method of identification. One year later, the United States adopted the method as well. Today, fingerprints are going beyond criminal justice and being used for a variety of new technologies and security systems. Even cellular phones are using fingerprints as way to ensure privacy! Fingerprinting has a long, diversity history encompassing several thousand years, but future uses for fingerprints are likely to be just as unique as the fingerprints themselves.

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