Herschel, William James

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Herschel, William James

18331918
BRITISH
MAGISTRATE

William James Herschel is considered one of the first Europeans to recognize the value of fingerprints for identification purposes. He began using fingerprints and handprints, instead of signatures, in his work as a magistrate in colonial India in the 1850s and 1860s. He later collaborated with scientist Francis Galton , whose work led to establishing the first fingerprint classification system, implemented by Scotland Yard in 1901.

Herschel had always been fascinated by fingerprints. As a young man, he collected the fingerprints of his family members and friends as mementos, noticing that each impression was unique to each person, and that the patterns didn't change with age. In 1858, when he went to work in Jungipoor, India, as chief magistrate, Herschel found himself looking for a way to seal a contract with a local businessman. He asked for the man's handprint, and this unique method of signature secured Herschel's deal. Subsequently, Herschel began using handprints, and then fingerprints, on pensions, deeds, and jail warrants as a way to prevent fraud in a society where illiteracy was high.

At approximately the same time, Scottish physician and missionary Henry Faulds was studying the use of fingerprints in Japan. He wrote an article outlining his idea of using fingerprints to assist in criminal investigations for the scientific journal Nature in 1880. Herschel read the article and wrote a response to Faulds' piece in Nature's next issue. In it Herschel asserted that he had been collecting fingerprints since the 1860s, and was therefore the true inventor of this method.

In 1892, the debate caught the attention of Francis Galton, a British scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton published Finger Prints, a work that established the uniqueness of fingerprints and suggested creating a classification system for them. Galton also publicly sided with Herschel, and thus Galton and Herschel became widely known as the two main innovators in fingerprint collection. Years later, Faulds' contributions were also recognized by the scientific community.

As one of the forefathers of fingerprint identification, Herschel's story and research has been well-documented in numerous books and journal articles, including the 2003 Imprint of the Raj by Chandak Sengoopta.

see also Evidence; Fingerprint.