Fingerprints: A Historical Mark in Forensic Identification

Fingerprints have been used as a unique method of identification for over a century, revolutionizing personal identification and forensic science. But, how did this method begin and who really invented it? This topic has been at the center of a historical dispute that has provided numerous insights that have benefited society globally.

Early Days with William Herschel (1870s)

  • Context: William Herschel, a magistrate in India, implemented the use of fingerprints to prevent fraud in legal document signatures.
  • Motivation: His initial goal was more psychological than technical; he aimed to deter people from denying their signatures.
  • Discovery: Over time, Herschel observed that fingerprints were unique and constant throughout a person’s life, based on decades of sample collection.

Francis Galton’s Contribution (1888)

  • Epiphany: While researching how to positively identify criminals, Galton realized the potential of fingerprint ridges.
  • Collaboration and Development: After learning about Herschel’s work, Galton developed a classification system based on verifiable points, culminating in the publication of his book Fingerprints in 1892, which established the foundations of modern dactyloscopy.

Henry Faulds and the Controversy

  • Idea Independence: Faulds had conceived the utility of fingerprints while studying ancient pottery in Japan, observing clear impressions in the clay.
  • Experimentation: He conducted tests on his own fingers with acid and heat to prove the immutability of fingerprints.
  • Contributions and Recognition: Despite his efforts and success in the forensic use of fingerprints to exonerate an innocent in 1880, the lack of extensive data and a classification system limited his recognition compared to Galton.


The dispute over the true pioneer of fingerprint identification among Galton, Herschel, and Faulds reflects a saga of discovery and scientific competition. Despite their differences in recognition, each contributed significantly to the development of a technique that is fundamental in modern forensic science.