Skip to Content
Uncategorized

Fingerprinting’s finger-pointing past

How fingerprinting made its mark.

While face recognition software, iris scanning, and other identification technologies have been capturing headlines as promising new authentication and security tools, fingerprint records, arguably the first biometric databases, go back more than a hundred years. The idea of using fingerprints for identification was startlingly novel in its time-and caused a bitter dispute between two men who claimed to have invented the technology.

During the 1870s, Henry Faulds, a Scottish missionary working as a doctor in Japan, happened across an ancient pot marked with its creator’s fingerprints. The discovery inspired him to investigate fingerprints. In 1880, Faulds published a letter in Nature in which he observed that “when bloody finger-marks or impressions on clay, glass, etc., exist, they may lead to the scientific identification of criminals.” The next month, Nature published a reply from William Herschel, an India-based British magistrate. Herschel had collected fingerprints since the 1860s and suspected that each person’s fingerprint was unique-but he had never studied their potential for forensic use.

Neither letter received much attention until 1892, when Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin and a noted scientist himself, published Finger Prints. Galton established that fingerprints are unique and don’t change over a person’s lifetime, and suggested a classifying system. In 1901, Scotland Yard founded its Fingerprint Bureau, based largely on Galton’s system. Although Faulds had suggested a similar system to Scotland Yard years earlier, Galton and Herschel took credit for the innovation. Infuriated, Faulds instigated a public battle of letters with Herschel that would last until his rival’s death in 1917.

Regardless of who originally envisioned fingerprints as a forensic tool, the practice took off. In 1902, fingerprints were first used as evidence in a British court to identify a burglar who had stolen some billiard balls. And 1902 was also the year that fingerprints were first systematically employed in the United States, when the New York Civil Service Commission began fingerprinting applicants to prevent them from cheating on tests.

Although fingerprinting may recall the Sherlock Holmesian era during which it was created, new tools have brought the system into the digital age. Today, the FBI’s fingerprint system contains more than 40 million people’s fingerprints. A suspect’s prints can be identified within two hours; just a few years ago, the process could take weeks.

Deep Dive

Uncategorized

Five poems about the mind

DREAM VENDING MACHINE I feed it coins and watch the spring coil back,the clunk of a vacuum-packed, foil-wrappeddream dropping into the tray. It dispenses all kinds of dreams—bad dreams, good dreams,short nightmares to stave off worse ones, recurring dreams with a teacake marshmallow center.Hardboiled caramel dreams to tuck in your cheek,a bag of orange dreams…

Work reinvented: Tech will drive the office evolution

As organizations navigate a new world of hybrid work, tech innovation will be crucial for employee connection and collaboration.

Investing in people is key to successful transformation

People-related factors like talent attraction and retention and clear top-down communication will determine whether your transformation progresses or stalls.

The way forward: Merging IT and operations

Digital transformation in any industry begins with bridging the gap between two traditionally separate teams.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.