Among its many functions, skin eliminates waste products in the form of sweat. Friction ridge skin – raised layers of skin with openings for sweat glands – covers the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. During fetal development, these ridges form patterns that remain unchanged. The stable and complex characteristics of friction ridges enable a form of identification that law enforcement has used for over a century. (See Figure 1)
Figure 1. Recipient of the Nikon Award for
Forensic Photographer of 2005, Mr. Sandy Weiss
took this photo of a fingerprint with an oblique
flash to eliminate reflections. Courtesy of Sanford L. Weiss, Packer Engineering (Naperville, IL).
The Emergence of Fingerprint Identification
In the 1870s, Henry Faulds investigated the possibility of using fingerprints as identifying marks. An enthusiastic Faulds tried to interest Scotland Yard in this new method of identification, but the Yard favored a popular technique devised by French police official Alphonse Bertillon. The Bertillon System, considered to be the first widely accepted scientific method of biometric identification, relied upon a combination of physical measurements; full-length and profile photographs; and descriptions of scars, tattoos, and hair andeye color.
Despite Scotland Yard’s rejection, Faulds still believed in the value of fingerprints and published his research in the scientific journal, Nature. He sent a copy of his paper to Charles Darwin, who passedit on to Francis Galton, his cousin. Galton performed his own investigations. He presented his findings in a book, Finger Prints (1892). In the introduction, he wrote that friction ridges “have the unique merit of retaining all their peculiarities unchanged throughout life, and afford in consequence anincomparably surer criterion of identity than any other bodily feature.”
The dawn of the new century brought two important developments for fingerprinting in the United Kingdom: Edward R. Henry, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, published his book, The Classification and Use of Finger Prints (1900), which proposed a fingerprint classification and analysis system to replaceBertillon’s; and the British Home Secretary created a committee to considerfingerprint identification. Following the recommendations of the committee, ScotlandYard’s three-person Fingerprint Branch opened in July 1901. The small departmentused the Henry system of classification, which has become the core of fingerprintsystems in most English-speaking countries.