Fingerprints have been used as signature since ancient times. In ancient Babylon, for example, fingerprints were used on clay tablets for business transactions, and in ancient China thumb prints have been found on clay seals. It is unknown, however, whether or not these civilizations recognised the unique characteristics of fingerprints.
Their use as a modern system of identification developed in the British colony in India, by Sir William Herschel, a Chief Magistrate in Jungipoor. Playing on local superstitions that personal contact with a document made it more binding, he began to require palm or fingerprints on business contracts made with local Indian workers. As Herschel’s system grew, he realized that a person’s fingerprints did not change with age. He felt that fingerprints would be a good solution to the problems with identification.
A decade later, Dr Henry Faulds took up the serious study of the individual characteristics of fingerprints, and devised the first formal system of classifying them. His original nine types of fingerprints were reduced and simplified by Sir Francis Galton a short time later into the three major patterns used for classification today: loops, arches, and whorls.
In 1903, Walter Dinnie, former Chief Inspector of the London Metropolitan Police, was named Police Commissioner of New Zealand. He had extensive training in colonial policing and forensic technology, and was responsible for the development of fingerprinting in New Zealand. He sought to professionalise and modernise the New Zealand Police Force, and insisted that fingerprints of every arrested criminal be taken along with their criminal history, and forwarded to the Fingerprint Bureau in Wellington. By 30 June 1903, the Bureau had already received 498 sets.
Supplemented with mug shots and detailed identification records, in just a few of years New Zealand Police became internationally renowned for its impressively successful criminal identification system. In fact, in May 1905, New Zealand boasted the first ever criminal conviction based on fingerprint evidence alone: John Clancy was convicted of breaking and entering in Wellington on the strength of a single finger impression left on a broken piece of window glass. This fingerprint matched his fingerprints, which had been recorded at the Auckland gaol a few months earlier.
Chelsea Nichols, March 2010. Unless otherwise stated, all images and information found on this website are property of the New Zealand Police Museum.