A Handy History of Fingerprints Or Herschel’s ‘Weapon of Penetrating Certainty.’


I admit, I’ve been a little tricky with this title because this is not directly about who or which culture invented fingerprinting. The man I am about to introduce to you, fully acknowledges that the historic dilemma of, ‘who-when-where’ is still not completely solved.

Meanwhile, his claim, quite rightly in my view, is that he really did provide the route to its ultimate success as a detection technique – certainly in Great Britain – in a special ‘hands-on’ way. He modestly claims, “the discovery of the value of fingerprints.” (source: Herschel William James, Sir (1833-1917) The Origin of Finger-Printing, 1916, p. 36)

William James Herschel, from the outset, referred to fingerprinting – as far as crime was concerned – as “a weapon of penetrating certainty for the sterner needs of Justice.” (ibid, p. 4).

Indeed, we now know how very true that remains and many of us now use that same discovery as an everyday domestic application in preference to trying to remember a PIN number for our smart phone or tablet or door entry systems etc. –  a simple whirl of skin says ‘this is me, so open sesame’!  Herschel referred to this as, “the stubborn persistence of the patterns on our fingers,” (ibid, p.5)

So my reference to ‘handy’ beginnings refers to a young man living in Bengal during the 1850’s. His name was Rajyadhar Konai and and he lived in the village of Nista near Jungipoor and you have already been introduced to his inky hand.

This was a commercial signature – his mark, if you prefer. It says, ′I have read and agreed the contract and now with my hand print I am sealing that agreement and I cannot claim other than to proceed or fall victim to whatever forfeit is determined for non- compliance of my commitment to honour it.’

This was a system William Herschel had stumbled across when working on a project for road metalling when he was tendering for quotations and commitments to supply a special binding material for roadways called ‘ghooting’. The hand print system, Herschel claims rather callously, was used in this instance, “to frighten Konai out of all thought of repudiating his signature hereafter.” (ibid p.8).  In fairness to Herschel, he did quickly add, “He, of course, had never dreamt of such an attestation, but fell in readily enough.” (ibid, p.8)

They both had an interest in using this form of signature with Herschel doing the same so they could compare prints and joke about palmistry and the mystical practices of fortune telling. Herschel’s contracts with Konai continued on this basis of hand print signature agreements, but meanwhile Herschel was having other thoughts of how powerful this form of personal identification might become. So it was, he began serious research of this system using his own hands and then just using his fingers in an attempt to discovery a fool-proof identification system.


The unknown part was how persistent would fingerprints be? The hands and fingers change as age increases and wear and tear are a constant factor on the skin condition. Is it really possible that the nature of a person’s fingerprints is fixed for their life-time?

These were the problems that Herschel grappled with and he was assisted in his research when appointed as a Magistrate to a area called Nuddea near Calcutta in 1860 to oversee the legal processes dealing with the so-called ‘Indigo Disturbances‘ which gave rise to much violence, fraud, perjury cases and litigation of all kinds. Sometimes referred to as ‘The Blue Mutiny‘, modern perspectives recognize this terrible oppression of the indigo planters – usually by their ‘host’ farmers – who in turn were being exploited by the West for the precious blue dye extracted from this special plant. The British textile industry had a rapacious and exploitative appetite – but that is another story.

Suffice it to say, Herschel gained a great deal of knowledge and experimental expertise turning what he called his ‘fad’ or hobby for his fingerprint identification system into three years zealous experimentation amongst the senior police staff and all kinds of Indian society. This was purely a private procedure amongst his own colleagues and Station personnel and had no legal connection with any individuals involved in actual criminal proceedings. Indeed many of the people he fingerprinted were senior judges.

Herschel comments; “I was driven to take-up fingerprints now with a definite object before me, and for three years continued taking a very large number from all sorts and conditions of men.” (ibid p.11)

He even wondered if an artist could draw a person’s fingerprint with such accuracy, it could be forged and then used on contracts to dupe others; “I therefore submitted some specimens to the best artists in Calcutta to imitate. Their failure sufficed to dispel all anxiety on that point.” (ibid, p.14)

Back in England in 1863, he talks of continuing his ‘hobby’ with more and more people becoming interested but no real movement to impress the Government, Judiciary or Police Commissioner. His progress on whether fingerprints will change as the person gets older took priority and by definition, this took a lot of waiting time.

One fascinating comparison Herschel made was that of his own son, Alexander Herschel’s fingerprints at ages 7 3/4; 17 & then 40 years of age as reproduced below:

HERSCHEL.jpgHerschel William James, Sir (1833-1917) The Origin of Finger-Printing, 1916, (p. 31)

“As time went on,” said Herschel, “it was chiefly the incessant evidence of my own ten fingers, and of my whole hand, which wrought in me the overwhelming conviction that the lines of the skin persisted indefinitely.” (ibid, p. 28)

So whilst in the background it was a contemporary, distinguished scientist Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) who is rightly credited with the actual discovery of finger-printing as a technique for a unique identification system –  it was  Herschel (1833-1917) who progressed the time-line accuracy of the fingerprint and managed – from an inky image of Konai’s hand in 1858 – to take this potential to its destined use as a detecting tool. It was adopted by  Scotland Yard with the support of the  Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Edward Henry in 1901 and now, what Herschel liked to call his “weapon of penetrating certainty, ” is used all over the world for crime detection.

FINGERPRINTS_crop.jpgCourtesy of Slough History Online
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3 Responses to A Handy History of Fingerprints Or Herschel’s ‘Weapon of Penetrating Certainty.’

  1. One of the best write-up on Sir William James Herschel. I am a forensic scientist with 32 years experience in Fingerprints Bureau, a unit of Crime Branch, Delhi Police, India. I haven’t read so much elaborated article on any Fingerprints pioneers. Basically, due to his contributions, Sir WJ Herschel should have been called the *’Father of Fingerprints’*. That’s another controversy that the credit of one’s work is given to another.
    Be in the loop for further discussions.


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