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  Themes Homepage > William James Herschel and the discovery of fingerprinting
 
Famous Slough
William James Herschel and the discovery of fingerprinting

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William James Herschel was born in Slough on 9th January 1833, the grandson of astronomer William Herschel, and the son of John Herschel, also an astronomer. His father asked him to choose a career other than astronomy, so he joined the East India Company, and in 1853 was posted to Bengal.

Following the Indian Mutiny of 1858, Herschel became a member of the Indian Civil Service, and was posted to Jungipoor. In July 1858 he drew up a contract with a local man, Mr Konai, for the supply of road-making materials. In order to prevent Konai denying his signature at a later date, Herschel made him put a hand-print on the document.

 
Herschel continued to experiment with hand-prints, soon realising that only fingers needed to be used. He collected prints from friends and family, and came to the conclusion that a person's fingerprints do not change over time. He suggested to the governor of Bengal that fingerprints should be used on legal documents, in order to prevent impersonation and the repudiation of contracts, but this suggestion was not acted upon. Prints of hands and fingers made by W. J. Herschel
Prints of hands and fingers made by W. J. Herschel
 

In 1877, Herschel was appointed Magistrate of Hooghly. He instituted the taking of pensioners' fingerprints, so that their pensions could not be collected by an imposter. He also began the fingerprinting of criminals, so that their jail sentences could not be carried out by a hired impostor.

Herschel returned to England in 1878, and in 1880 published a letter in 'Nature', explaining his experiences with fingerprinting. In 1916, the year before he died, he published an account of his work entitled 'The Origin of Fingerprinting'.

Although he developed the technique of fingerprinting, Herschel only ever used it as an administrative tool. He did not realise that it could be used to catch criminals - it was Francis Galton and Edward Henry, building on the foundations that Herschel had laid, that turned fingerprinting into a tool for fighting crime.

 
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  Themes Homepage > William James Herschel and the discovery of fingerprinting
 
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