History Of The Fingerprint

By Grace Taylor

A fingerprint scanner is integrated into the printed circuit. (Surasak Suwanmake/Getty Images)

It may seem like a product of modern technology and science, but fingerprinting got its start in ancient China, when the fingerprint was used as a seal and signature on government documents. Likewise, fingerprints have been known to act as a mark in ancient Babylonian, Greek, and Egyptian societies. Although the technology for identifying fingerprints would not come for some time, the fact that no two fingerprints seemed to be alike was noted as far back as the 1200s by Iranian doctor Rashīd al-Dīn Faḍlullāh Hamadānī.

More precise analysis of the fingerprint occurred during the 19th century, when Johannes Evangelista Purkinje identified nine separate patterns comprising unique arches, loops, and whorls (which are basically the ridges that link other patterns together) in 1823. Using this system, William Herschel began using the fingerprint to verify wills, making sure no greedy friend or family member was getting in on the deceased's estate unless they were given the ol' thumbs-up by the dearly departed.

The friction ridges on a finger. (Frettie/Wikipedia Commons)

But usually when we think of fingerprints, we think of crime. Sure enough, once the word got out that fingerprints could be used to identify an individual, cops all over the globe added the information to their bag of tricks. It was particularly useful in a 1892 case of two slain sons and an injured mother in Argentina. The mother, who miraculously survived the attack, claimed a neighbor murdered her family, but after police determined a bloody thumbprint on their door didn't match the neighbor, she confessed to the crime.

By 1901, Scotland Yard formulated a fingerprinting database, and less than 10 years later, this newfangled technology was put to the legal test in the trial of Thomas Jennings. He was accused of killing a man in an attempted robbery after the police found his fingerprint on a rail that had just been painted, so his defense attorney attempted to sow seeds of doubt about the reliability of fingerprinting. This badly backfired when the attorney's own fingerprint was easily lifted off a piece of paper and his attempts to find a similar fingerprint from the general public to prove they were not unique failed miserably.

Likewise, prisons in the United States began identifying inmates primarily based on fingerprints. This cleared up sticky situations, like two similar-looking men named Will West serving different sentences at the same prison at the same time, but it led many criminals and spies to take the extreme measure of burning or filing off their fingerprints to evade capture. Alvin Karpis, the only "public enemy number one" to actually be captured alive, was noted to have removed his fingerprints with the help of a surgeon (who he later likely killed) when he was incarcerated at Alcatraz. As of right now, the F.B.I. holds over 51 million fingerprint records, and the U.S. government at large possesses some 260 million (which is a lot, considering the current population of the country is 329 million).

After his arrest in 1934, Alvin Karpis displays results of fingerprint removal. (Federal Bureau of Investigation/Wikimedia Commons)

Nowadays, fingerprints are used to identify oneself to technology like phones and door locks, but you may be shocked to find out that the old adage that no two fingerprints are alike has never actually been proven. Most practical evidence would suggest such an event to be truly rare, yet the use of fingerprinting as evidence has become hotly debated by scientists, who argue that much of the similarities are left open to interpretation, especially given that an individual's own fingerprint has been known to change over the years. In fact, 23 people have later been proven innocent of crimes in the U.S. despite fingerprint evidence.

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Grace Taylor

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