Recognition of the fact that the fingerprints of every individual are peculiar to that one person, has, for centuries formed the basis of personal identification. Early Chinese traders used the thumb impression in order to legalise their contracts. So did the Egyptians, and the Bible contains several references to this method of signing documents.
Modern fingerprinting as we know it today, perhaps owes its origins to William Herschell, who was a British administrative official in India during the latter part of the nineteenth century. One of Herschell's responsibilities included the paying of wages to the government's Indian employees. It was not uncommon for these men to change clothes and return several times to the wages office and collect money which rightly belonged to other workers. Herschell's staff had great difficulty in telling one Indian from the other. In an attempt to positively identify each man, Herschell, who was aware of the use of finger impressions through his dealings with the Chinese merchants in Bengal, decided to apply their methods and record the forefinger impression of all the workers under his jurisdiction. Impressed with the results, he then wrote to the Inspector-General of Prisons in Bengal drawing his attention to the success he had achieved, and suggesting that the use of a similar procedure would be of considerable help to his prison staff in identifying convicts. The churlish reply he received, however, so discouraged Herschell that it was several years before he took any further steps to publicise his findings.
At about the same time, a Scottish doctor, named Henry Faulds, was teaching physiology to Japanese medical students in a Tokyo hospital. Whilst in Japan, he too had been intrigued by this practice of using a fingerprint in order to sign documents. As a result of his investigations he became aware of its possibilities in other ways. Some time in 1880, a letter from Faulds appeared in a magazine called Nature, which was the leading scientific journal of the time. From the point of view of future crime detection techniques this is the first indication that it could become a practical proposition.
The relevant part of the letter read:
'. . . I have heard, since coming to the conclusion by original and patient
experiment, that Chinese criminals from early times have been made to give
impressions of their fingers.
'There can be no doubt as to the advantage of having, besides the photographs,
a nature copy of the forever unchanging finger furrows of important criminals. . . .'
The next, and perhaps the most important person to arrive on the scene was one Francis Galton, an eminent scientist of the period, and a cousin of the famous Charles Darwin. He had read Fauld's letter in Nature, and understanding the possibilities, began work amassing many sets of fingerprints at his laboratory in the South Kensington Museum. What Galton realised, which had been overlooked by both Herschell and Faulds, was the necessity of finding a suitable method of classifying the various types of fingerprint patterns in order that a set of impressions could be easily retrieved from a large collection.
Following several years of experiment Galton finally succeeded in identifying four basic patterns. They were arches, whorls, loops sloping to the right and loops sloping to the left. Armed with this information, he devised a system of classification which he set out in a book entitled, Fingerprints, which was published in 1892. Not even Galton could have visualised the far reaching effects of his research and its subsequent developments in the field of law enforcement.
It was during this period that the Metropolitan Police began to take an interest in 'bertillionage'—a form of personal identification based on the individual's physical measurements. This system had been invented by a clerk in the Paris Surete, by the name of Alphonse Bertillion, and after some success he was appointed to the Prefecture in order that he could set up a department of identification. Adherents of 'bertillionage' were bringing pressure to bear on the Home Secretary, Herbert Asquith, to introduce this system into England. Asquith however, had read Gallon's book and became sufficiently impressed for him to set up a committee under the chairmanship of Charles Edward Troup of the Home Office.
The committee was charged wilh the task of investigating the possibilities of both methods with a view to selecting the best. Eventually the Troup Committee, after visiting Bertillion in Paris, and interviewing Galton recommended that an abbreviated form of 'bertillionage' and the Gallon ten finger classification be used in conjunction with each other. A fine example, even in those days, of a typical British compromise!
Meanwhile, in India, the current Inspector-General of Prisons, Edward Henry, had been operating the type of fingerprint identification which William Herschell had used some years before. In 1893 Gallon's book came into Henry's hands, and as he pondered on the scientist's classification he received a copy of the Troup Committee report. After some careful reading, he set to work on the development of a more comprehensive break-down of fingerprint patterns.
Later, whilst on leave in England, Henry visited Gallon at his laboratory in South Kensington and together they established five basic patterns, namely, arches, tented arches, radial loops, ulnar loops and whorls. To each pattern Henry gave a symbol: A, T, R, U, and W. When combined with a ridge count between what he called the Inner Terminus and the Outer Terminus, he found the key to a classification system which is still the basis of most of the fingerprint collections in use throughout the world.