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What is the History of Fingerprinting?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The history of fingerprinting for identification has ancient origins, as historical artifacts from regions like China and Persia can attest. As a recognized science, fingerprinting made significant strides in the 1800s, becoming one of the first forensic sciences by the early 1900s. Today it continues to be a valuable tool for identifying people of interest by examining evidence left behind at a crime scene, and fingerprint evidence is widely accepted in court.

Pottery and other artifacts from several ancient cultures bear fingerprints clearly left as deliberate marks to identify the maker. In China, officials appear to have been among the first in the world to use fingerprints in the third century BCE as official seals on documents, and in ancient Persia, fingerprints were an accepted identification on legal documents by the 1300s. The practice of marking objects with fingerprints in several cultures laid the groundwork for fingerprinting as a forensic science.

The history of fingerprinting advanced significantly in the 1600s with several scientific monographs on the subject. Researchers like Marcello Malpighi noted differences in human fingerprints and began setting up classification systems to describe different types of fingerprints. In the 1800s, Dr. Henry Faulds and Sir Francis Galton also contributed to the history of fingerprinting by devising their own systems to quickly separate out fingerprints by type. Numerous researchers added to the body of knowledge about the unique nature of fingerprints between individuals, creating substantial support for the argument that they could be used for identification.

Sir William Hershel, a British official in India, began using fingerprints on contracts in the 1800s, and his activities drew attention, leading people to wonder if fingerprints could be used to identify people in forensic cases. Mark Twain popularized the idea of identifying a criminal by fingerprints in one of his novels, and Argentine innovator Juan Vucetich made history by creating the first library of fingerprint files to use as references. By the early 1900s, these pioneers in the history of fingerprinting had encouraged a number of nations to adopt fingerprint identification and start reference files of their own.

Early fingerprinting relied on careful manual inspection of sample prints from a crime scene to compare them against records or prints taken from a suspect. Keen observational skills were necessary, and it was difficult to work with partial or smeared prints. In the later 20th century, researchers began developing computer systems to assist with automatic matching and open a new era in the history of fingerprinting. These systems also provided an interface for networking with other law enforcement agencies to draw on a substantial pool of sample prints taken from criminals, suspects, and other people subjected to fingerprinting, such as government employees completing background checks.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By clintflint — On Mar 16, 2014

@Mor - It kind of bothers me that they are so easy to place though. I mean, I'm not a criminal or anything, but I do know that my prints are in the US system, because I was a Peace Corps volunteer and we had to submit a set of prints as part of the entrance application.

I'm not planning on robbing a bank or anything like that, but what if I want to protest about something that the government isn't happy about and they use my fingerprints against me one day?

On the other hand, there have been a lot of serious crimes solved using fingerprint evidence. I don't know where the line should be against the government collecting them.

By Mor — On Mar 16, 2014

@Fa5t3r - That might have been an issue when we didn't have computers, because the human eye isn't perfect at distinguishing differences, but I'm pretty sure with a computer it would be billions to one that anyone would have an identical print to anyone else. Fingerprints aren't just a bunch of lines, after all. If you look closely, there are all kinds of irregularities in the lines, like little bumps and curves. They are actually quite lovely if you take the time to look at them.

By Fa5t3r — On Mar 15, 2014

I've always wondered what the chances are of someone having the same fingerprint as someone else. I know it's not supposed to happen, but there are a lot of people in the world and only so many differences that can occur between fingerprints. I wouldn't have thought it was completely out of the question that someone might have almost the exact same fingerprint as another person in the whole world.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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