On the 28th July 1858 William Herschel, a British Magistrate in West Bengal in India, made the first modern use of fingerprints for identification. Although records of finger and palm prints being used as early as the year 300 were subsequently found in China, Herschel was the first westerner to routinely take advantage of the unique nature of a person’s prints to sign contracts. It was only later that their use in criminal investigations began.
Herschel had been interested in fingerprinting for a number of years but, having paid in advance for an expensive contract in which local businessman Rajyadhar Konai agreed to build a new road, chose to take the full hand print of the contractor as his commitment to honour the construction. Herschel himself later admitted, in his 1916 book “The Origin of Fingerprinting” that he simply wished to scare the contractor away from disowning a written signature.
The success of the first print led Herschel to routinely use prints to authenticate legal documents, with his increasing collection and further reference to his own fingerprints leading him to publicly state his belief that a person’s print pattern was unique, permanent and unchangeable. Having studied thousands of prints, he later realised that he could even stop taking a full handprint and instead take prints of just two fingers.
However it was another 34 years before fingerprints were used to solve a crime, in an Argentinian case where a mother murdered her two sons and left her bloody hand print on a door post.