Finger Prints: The Classic 1892 Treatise

Finger Prints: The Classic 1892 Treatise

by Francis Galton

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Landmark discusses the evidence validating fingerprints as a means of personal identification, permanence of the fingerprint characteristics, uniqueness of an assemblage of ridge details, and the variability and classifiable nature of finger patterns — along with such fundamental investigations as biological and racial variations and the inheritance of


Landmark discusses the evidence validating fingerprints as a means of personal identification, permanence of the fingerprint characteristics, uniqueness of an assemblage of ridge details, and the variability and classifiable nature of finger patterns — along with such fundamental investigations as biological and racial variations and the inheritance of fingerprint traits. 34 tables. 15 plates.

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Finger Prints

By Francis Galton

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-43930-3



THE palms of the hands and the soles of the feet are covered with two totally distinct classes of marks. The most conspicuous are the creases or folds of the skin which interest the followers of palmistry, but which are no more significant to others than the creases in old clothes; they show the lines of most frequent flexure, and nothing more. The least conspicuous marks, but the most numerous by far, are the so-called papillary ridges; they form the subject of the present book. If they had been only twice as large as they are, they would have attracted general attention and been commented on from the earliest times. Had Dean Swift known and thought of them, when writing about the Brobdingnags, whom he constructs on a scale twelve times as great as our own, he would certainly have made Gulliver express horror at the ribbed fingers of the giants who handled him. The ridges on their palms would have been as broad as the thongs of our coach-whips.

Let no one despise the ridges on account of their smallness, for they are in some respects the most important of all anthropological data. We shall see that they form patterns, considerable in size and of a curious variety of shape, whose boundaries can be firmly outlined, and which are little worlds in themselves. They have the unique merit of retaining all their peculiarities unchanged throughout life, and afford in consequence an incomparably surer criterion of identity than any other bodily feature. They may be made to throw welcome light on some of the most interesting biological questions of the day, such as heredity, symmetry, correlation, and the nature of genera and species. A representation of their lineations is easily secured in a self-recorded form, by inking the fingers in the way that will be explained, and pressing them on paper. There is no prejudice to be overcome in procuring these most trustworthy sign-manuals, no vanity to be pacified, no untruths to be guarded against.

My attention was first drawn to the ridges in 1888 when preparing a lecture on Personal Identification for the Royal Institution, which had for its principal object an account of the anthropometric method of Bertillon, then newly introduced into the prison administration of France. Wishing to treat the subject generally, and having a vague knowledge of the value sometimes assigned to finger marks, I made inquiries, and was surprised to find, both how much had been done, and how much there remained to do, before establishing their theoretical value and practical utility.

Enough was then seen to show that the subject was of real importance, and I resolved to investigate it; all the more so, as the modern processes of photographic printing would enable the evidence of such results as might be arrived at, to be presented to the reader on an enlarged and easily legible form, and in a trustworthy shape. Those that are put forward in the following pages, admit of considerable extension and improvement, and it is only the fact that an account of them seems useful, which causes me to delay no further before submitting what has thus far been attained, to the criticism of others.

I have already published the following memoirs upon this subject:

1. "Personal Identification." Journal Royal Inst. 25th May 1888, and Nature, 28th June 1888.

2. "Patterns in Thumb and Finger Marks." Phil. Trans. Royal Society, vol. clxxxii. (1891) b. pp. 1-23. [This almost wholly referred to thumb marks.]

3. "Method of Indexing Finger Marks." Proc. Royal Society, vol. xlix. (1891).

4. "Identification by Finger Tips." Nineteenth Century, August 1891.

This first and introductory chapter contains a brief and orderly summary of the contents of those that follow.

The second chapter treats of the previous employment of finger prints among various nations, which has been almost wholly confined to making daubs, without paying any regard to the delicate lineations with which this book is alone concerned. Their object was partly superstitious and partly ceremonial; superstitious, so far as a personal contact between the finger and the document was supposed to be of mysterious efficacy : ceremonial, as a formal act whose due performance in the presence of others could be attested. A few scattered instances are mentioned of persons who had made finger prints with enough care to show their lineations, and who had studied them; some few of these had used them as signatures. Attention is especially drawn to Sir William Herschel, who brought the method of finger prints into regular official employment when he was " Collector" or chief administrator of the Hooghly district in Bengal, and my large indebtedness to him is expressed in this chapter and in other places.

In the third chapter various methods of making good prints from the fingers are described at length, and more especially that which I have now adopted on a somewhat large scale, at my anthropometric laboratory, which, through the kindness of the authorities of South Kensington, is at present lodged in the galleries of their Science Collections. There, the ten digits of both hands of all the persons who come to be measured, are impressed with clearness and rapidity, and a very large collection of prints is steadily accumulating, each set being, as we shall see, a sign-manual that differentiates the person who made it, throughout the whole of his life, from all the rest of mankind.

Descriptions are also given of various methods of enlarging a finger print to a convenient size, when it is desired to examine it closely. Photography is the readiest of all; on the other hand the prism (as in a camera lucida) has merits of its own, and so has an enlarging pantagraph, when it is furnished with a small microscope and cross wires to serve as a pointer.

In the fourth chapter the character and purpose of the ridges, whose lineations appear in the finger print, are discussed. They have been the topic of a considerable amount of careful physiological study in late years, by writers who have investigated their development in early periods of unborn life, as well as their evolutionary history. They are perfectly defined in the monkeys, but appear in a much less advanced stage in other mammalia. Their courses run somewhat independently of the lines of flexure. They are studded with pores, which are the open mouths of ducts proceeding from the somewhat deeply-seated glands which secrete perspiration, so one of their functions is to facilitate the riddance of that excretion. The ridges increase in height as the skin is thickened by hard usage, until callosities begin to be formed, which may altogether hide them. But the way in which they assist the touch and may tend to neutralise the dulling effect of a thick protective skin, is still somewhat obscure. They certainly seem to help in the discrimination of the character of surfaces that are variously rubbed between the fingers.

These preliminary topics having been disposed of, we are free in the fifth chapter to enter upon the direct course of our inquiry, beginning with a discussion of the various patterns formed by the lineations. It will be shown how systems of parallel ridges sweep in bold curves across the palmar surface of the hand, and how, whenever the boundaries of two systems diverge, the interspace is filled up by a compact little system of its own, variously curved or whorled, having a fictitious resemblance to an eddy between two currents. An interspace of this kind is found in the bulb of each finger. The ridges run in parallel lines across the finger, up to its last joint, beyond which the insertion of the finger-nail causes a compression of the ridges on either side; their intermediate courses are in consequence so much broadened out that they commonly separate, and form two systems with an interspace between them. The independent patterns that appear in this interspace upon the bulbs of the fingers, are those with which this book is chiefly concerned.

At first sight, the maze formed by the minute lineations is bewildering, but it is shown that every interspace can be surely outlined, and when this is done, the character of the pattern it encloses, starts conspicuously into view. Examples are given to show how the outlining is performed, and others in which the outlines alone are taken into consideration. The cores of the patterns are also characteristic, and are described separately. It is they alone that have attracted the notice of previous inquirers. The outlines fall for the most part into nine distinct genera, defined by the relative directions of the divergent ridges that enclose them. The upper pair (those that run towards the finger-tip) may unite, or one or other of them may surmount the other, thus making three possibilities. There are three similar possibilities in respect to the lower pair; so, as any one of the first group may be combined with any one of the second, there are 3 × 3, or nine possibilities in all. The practice of somewhat rolling the finger when printing from it, is necessary in order to impress enough of its surface to ensure that the points at which the boundaries of the pattern begin to diverge, shall be always included.

Plates are given of the principal varieties of patterns, having regard only to their more fundamental differences, and names are attached for the convenience of description; specimens are also given of the outlines of the patterns in all the ten digits of eight different persons, taken at hazard, to afford a first idea of the character of the material to be dealt with. Another and less minute system of classification under three heads is then described, which is very useful for rough preliminary purposes, and of which frequent use is made further on. It is into Arches, Loops, and Whorls. In the Arches, there is no pattern strictly speaking, for there is no interspace; the need for it being avoided by a successive and regular broadening out of the ridges as they cross the bulb of the finger. In Loops, the interspace is filled with a system of ridges that bends back upon itself, and in which no one ridge turns through a complete circle. Whorls contain all cases in which at least one ridge turns through a complete circle, and they include certain double patterns which have a whorled appearance. The transitional cases are few; they are fully described, pictured, and classified. One great advantage of the rude A.L.W. system is that it can be applied, with little risk of error, to impressions that are smudged or imperfect; it is therefore very useful so far as it goes. Thus it can be easily applied to my own finger prints on the title-page, made as they are from digits that are creased and roughened by seventy years of life, and whose impressions have been closely clipped in order to fit them into a limited space.

A third method of classification is determined by the origin of the ridges which supply the interspace, whether it be from the thumb side or the little-finger side; in other words, from the Inner or the Outer side.

Lastly, a translation from the Latin is given of the famous Thesis or Commentatio of Purkenje, delivered at the University of Breslau in 1823, together with his illustrations. It is a very rare pamphlet, and has the great merit of having first drawn attention to the patterns and attempted to classify them.

In the sixth chapter we reach the question of Persistence: whether or no the patterns are so durable as to afford a sure basis for identification. The answer was different from what had been expected. So far as the proportions of the patterns go, they are not absolutely fixed, even in the adult, inasmuch as they change with the shape of the finger. If the finger is plumped out or emaciated, or variously deformed by usage, gout, or age, the proportions of the pattern will vary also. Two prints of the same finger, one taken before and the other after an interval of many years, cannot be expected to be as closely alike as two prints similarly made from the same woodcut. They are far from satisfying the shrewd test of the stereoscope, which shows if there has been an alteration even of a letter in two otherwise duplicate pages of print. The measurements vary at different periods, even in the adult, just as much if not more than his height, span, and the lengths of his several limbs. On the other hand, the numerous bifurcations, origins, islands, and enclosures in the ridges that compose the pattern, are proved to be almost beyond change. A comparison is made between the pattern on a finger, and one on a piece of lace; the latter may be stretched or shrunk as a whole, but the threads of which it is made retain their respective peculiarities. The evidence on which these conclusions are founded is considerable, and almost wholly derived from the collections made by Sir W. Herschel, who most kindly placed them at my disposal. They refer to one or more fingers, and in a few instances to the whole hand, of fifteen different persons. The intervals before and after which the prints were taken, amount in some cases to thirty years. Some of them reach from babyhood to boyhood, some from childhood to youth, some from youth to advanced middle age, one from middle life to incipient old age. These four stages nearly include the whole of the ordinary life of man. I have compared altogether some 700 points of reference in these couplets of impressions, and only found a single instance of discordance, in which a ridge that was cleft in a child became united in later years. Photographic enlargements are given in illustration, which include between them a total of 157 pairs of points of reference, all bearing distinctive numerals to facilitate comparison and to prove their unchangeableness. Reference is made to another illustrated publication of mine, which raises the total number of points compared to 389, all of which were successful, with the single exception above mentioned. The fact of an almost complete persistence in the peculiarities of the ridges from birth to death, may now be considered as determined. They existed before birth, and they persist after death, until effaced by decomposition.

In the seventh chapter an attempt is made to appraise the evidential value of finger prints by the common laws of Probability, paying great heed not to treat variations that are really correlated, as if they were independent. An artifice is used by which the number of portions is determined, into which a print may be divided, in each of which the purely local conditions introduce so much uncertainty, that a guess derived from a knowledge of the outside conditions is as likely as not to be wrong. A square of six ridge-intervals in the side was shown by three different sets of experiments to be larger than required; one of four ridge-intervals in the side was too small, but one of five ridge-intervals appeared to be closely correct. A six-ridge interval square was, however, at first adopted, in order to gain assurance that the error should be on the safe side. As an ordinary finger print contains about twenty-four of these squares, the uncertainty in respect to the entire contents of the pattern due to this cause alone, is expressed by a fraction of which the numerator is 1, and the denominator is 2 multiplied into itself twenty-four times, which amounts to a number so large that it requires eight figures to express it.

A further attempt was made to roughly appraise the neglected uncertainties relating to the outside conditions, but large as they are, they seem much inferior in their joint effect to the magnitude of that just discussed.

Next it was found possible, by the use of another artifice, to obtain some idea of the evidential value of identity when two prints agree in all but one, two, three, or any other number of particulars. This was done by using the five ridge-interval squares, of which thirty-five may be considered to go into a single finger print, being about the same as the number of the bifurcations, origins, and other points of comparison. The accidental similarity in their numbers enables us to treat them roughly as equivalent. On this basis the well-known method of binomial calculation is easily applied, with the general result that, notwithstanding a failure of evidence in a few points, as to the identity of two sets of prints, each, say, of three fingers, amply enough evidence would be supplied by the remainder to prevent any doubt that the two sets of prints were made by the same person. When a close correspondence exists in respect to all the ten digits, the thoroughness of the differentiation of each man from all the rest of the human species is multiplied to an extent far beyond the capacity of human imagination. There can be no doubt that the evidential value of identity afforded by prints of two or three of the fingers, is so great as to render it superfluous to seek confirmation from other sources.

The eighth chapter deals with the frequency with which the several kinds of patterns appear on the different digits of the same person, severally and in connection. The subject is a curious one, and the inquiry establishes unexpected relationships and distinctions between different fingers and between the two hands, to whose origin there is at present no clue. The relationships are themselves connected in the following way ;—calling any two digits on one of the hands by the letters A and B respectively, and the digit on the other hand, that corresponds to B, by the symbol B1, then the kinship between A and B1. is identical, in a statistical sense, with the kinship between A and B.


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