The Strange and Fascinating History of Fingerprinting


The earliest known use of fingerprints in a forensic context was on a Chinese document from the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), which was found in a police station in the 1970s. The document, a report on a crime, includes a fingerprint impression of the accused and is titled “Plaster mold of a tiger’s paw print”.

Fingerprints became a popular means of identification in Europe in the late 19th century. In 1858, English physician Sir William James Herschel (1833-1917) was the first to use fingerprints to identify a person. He took the prints of a servant who had stolen some of his wife’s jewelry and compared them to a set of prints he had on file. He was able to identify the thief and have him arrested.

Herschel’s method was soon adopted by police forces around the world, and fingerprints began to be used in a variety of contexts, including to identify criminals, to solve crimes, and to determine the identity of unknown bodies.

The first scientific study of fingerprints was conducted by English zoologist Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). In his 1892 book, Fingerprints, Galton demonstrated that no two fingerprints are alike and that fingerprints can be used to identify individuals with a high degree of accuracy.

Galton’s work laid the foundation for the modern science of fingerprint analysis, which is used for both criminal and civil purposes. Fingerprints are now used to identify people for a variety of reasons, including for employment, for immigration, and for benefits.

The use of fingerprints has not been without controversy. In some cases, innocent people have been convicted of crimes based on false fingerprint evidence. In other cases, people have been denied benefits or employment based on false positives generated by fingerprint scanners.

Despite these controversies, fingerprinting remains a widely used and generally reliable means of identification.

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