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.