Today is a celebration only for those of us without criminal intentions – we commemorate the day in 1858 that fingerprints were used for the first time for identification purposes.

The little ridges on our skin that constitute our fingerprints. Not only are their patterns unique to each individual, but they also help with our sense of touch, and enable us to grip smooth and slippery surfaces.
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The story goes that Sir Wiliam James Herschel, British Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly district in Jungipoor, India, began using fingerprints in contracts with the native people. On this day in 1858 he decided, on a whim, to get a local business man to make a hand-print on a contract, to “frighten [him] out of all thought of repudiating his signature.” This made a big impression on the signee, and Herschel ended up using the hand-print technique on all his contracts. In later contracts he scaled down the process, taking only the prints of the index and middle fingers. People who had their hand-prints captured on contracts, believed that it somehow bound them tighter to the contract than simply placing their signatures on the paper. So, interestingly, the first use of fingerprints were motivated more by superstition than by science.

Since these early, superstitious beginnings, things have of course changed a lot, with fingerprint-recognition developing into a precise science, and with personal identification technologies becoming the stuff science fiction fantasies are made of, including DNA profiling, also known as genetic fingerprinting..

A fingerprint, in the most basic sense, is an impression left by the friction ridges (raised portions of the epidermis) on the finger. These ridges exist on the skin to assist in our sense of touch – they help, for example, to amplify the sensation of a finger brushing against some surface, transmitting the sensory signals to the nerves. The friction ridges also assist us in gripping smooth and slippery surfaces.

The discovery that the little patterns on our fingers are unique, and that the prints we leave at a scene can identify us after the fact, was not good news to criminals, who were suddenly faced with the extra hassle of wiping off weapons, wearing gloves and more, to avoid identification. I guess some career criminals would give anything to contract the medical condition known as adermatoglyphia. People suffering from this condition have completely smooth fingertips, palms, toes and soles, without suffering any other known problems. While this must be a terrible affliction if you want to go through certain legal procedures that require fingerprint identification, it does equip you well for a life of crime. I am sure that law enforcers the world over would be happy to know that only four families suffering from  this condition have so far been identified.

For the rest of us, I guess staying on the right side of the law remains the best option. And at least our fingerprints make us better equipped to pick up smooth, slippery objects like an ice cold beer!


  1. I think Sir William’s the grandson of William & Caroline Herschel, the astronomers. Maybe. The ice cold beer will have to wait – too early in the day for me just now…

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