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How Fingerprinting Came to Be a Crime-Solving Tool

A new book finally credits Henry Faulds back in 1880 with using fingertips to establish a person's identity.

July 23, 2001|DAN FESPERMAN | BALTIMORE SUN

Poor old Henry Faulds. In 1880, he had a great idea, but no one would pay attention, even after he published it in a scientific journal.

With plenty of evidence to support him, Faulds believed that by making an inked impression of people's fingertips, you could establish proof of their identity, a biological name tag that was virtually indestructible.

Half a century later, with his health failing and the roof of his house in danger of collapse, the dying Faulds still could find no one who would listen, although scientists and detectives around the world had long since begun using fingerprints for identification.

This slight of his contributions left him obscure and embittered, while his onetime rival, the credit-stealing Francis Galton, had not only made it into the history books but also had been knighted for his service to science.

Faulds' story--offering him full credit at last--is recounted in the new book "Fingerprints," the latest example of a growing genre of nonfiction for which there doesn't yet seem to be a name. Part history and part science, yet driven by personalities, they are books with the feel of a National Geographic special scripted by Oprah.

In other words, it's all about relationships.

"I've been calling them slice-of-history books, but it really is a mini-genre," says Colin Beavan, 37, the first-time author of "Fingerprints."

"I was never a history buff in school, because at the time a lot of the books we read were very dry. A lot of facts and analysis but not many interesting characters. It's the sugar that helps the history go down."

In this case, instead of Scott and Amundsen racing for the South Pole, or clockmaker John Harrison tinkering his way toward the secrets of Longitude, or the Professor and the Madman working to create the Oxford English Dictionary, we get Henry Faulds and Francis Galton, rival pioneers of what would become forensic science.

They were born into an era of the British Empire in which virtually every kind of criminal, from the pickpocket to the serial killer, got the same punishment--a hanging. With little or no chance to become a repeat offender, there wasn't much need to establish a criminal's correct identity.

That changed with criminal justice reforms in the mid-19th century. Not only were some crimes punished differently, but the first-time offender was also deemed worthy of a shorter sentence. The challenge then was to identify "habitual criminals," which wasn't so easy when they'd use a different name after each arrest.

In earlier years, a village constable might have spotted the lie, but with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, when faceless hordes moved to the cities for jobs in factories, anonymity was the order of the day.

Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon thought he had a solution. Using calipers and measuring tape, he plotted 11 head and body measurements to catalog every criminal.

The odds of all 11 measurements matching up between any two people were astronomical, even the measurements themselves weren't an exact science.

Meanwhile, Faulds was off in Japan. A Scotsman fascinated by the theories of Charles Darwin, yet also a missionary for the Presbyterian Church, Faulds was running a medical clinic in the late 1870s when he first began noticing the distinctive whorls and loops on people's fingers.

He sketched them, examined them, began recording them in wax. Then he started to ink them, collecting full sets by the thousands, concluding not only that no two fingerprints were alike, but also that each remained unchanged from cradle to grave.

He published his results in the scientific journal Nature. Faulds wrote police chiefs around the world with his findings. None answered.

Faulds also wrote to his hero, Charles Darwin, but the aging Darwin passed along the letter to a cousin, scientist Francis Galton.

Galton, a bit of an upper-class twit with rarely a kind word for anyone, never wrote back to Faulds, but he didn't forget the man's work. And when he, too, became fascinated by fingerprints, he unashamedly built upon Faulds' base of knowledge without ever crediting it.

But Galton can't be dismissed simply as a disagreeable thief. He put in a lot of hours on his own research, which he, too, published. And before long, police chiefs began to see the light.

Going from Bertillon's cumbersome "anthropometry" measurements to fingerprinting was sort of like going from a bulky box of vacuum tubes to a microchip. It was faster, more precise, with less room for error.

The challenge then was how to determine not so much what made each fingerprint different--the arches, loops, whorls and other tiny variations--but how to classify and file these differences so that police could find a match without having to examine the entire inventory.

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