Throwback Thursday –  When Fingerprints Went Official

July 28, 1858 – A British colonial magistrate in India starts using fingerprints as a means of identifying people.

It’s the first-known, modern official use of the technique.

Like many innovations, this one wasn’t completely new.

Ancient Babylonian clay tablets recording business transactions were sometimes “sealed” with fingerprints.

Officials in ancient Rome may have solved one murder by matching the culprit’s hand to a bloody hand print.

China’s T’ang Dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.) used fingerprints as a source of identification.

A thumbprint was a legal signature for documents in Japan around the same time.

A medieval Persian official noticed that the fingerprints on government documents were unique to the individual.

British physician Nehemiah Grew lectured in 1684 on the ridge patterns on fingerprints.

Italian doctor Marcello Malpighi wrote about the same subject just two years later.

An 1823 doctoral dissertation by Johannes Purkinje at the University of Breslau classified fingerprints into nine types.

Purkinje studied the ridges, spirals and loops with a microscope, another first in fingerprint study. But neither he nor Malpighi commented on fingerprints’ potential use for identification.

William James Herschel served as a magistrate at Nuddea, India.

At his request, local businessman Rajyadhar Konai made a hand print on the back of a contract July 17, 1858.

Herschel wasn’t initially trying to use the system for personal identification.

He merely wanted to “frighten [Konai] out of all thought of repudiating his signature.”
Herschel liked the idea and made it a regular requirement for Indians executing documents.

He soon moved from using palm prints to just taking impressions of the right index and middle fingers.

And he began to notice that no two prints were identical, and that prints didn’t change as an individual grew older.

Herschel’s 1877 request to use fingerprints to identify inmates at a Bengali prison in 1877 was denied, but the concept was moving from civil law to criminal law.

It would be 1892 before Argentine police official Juan Vucetich clearly established modern fingerprinting as a way to solve crimes and prove guilt. Vucetich was born in … 1858.

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