Inside India #25: The Indians who invented fingerprint classification

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Until the advent of DNA analysis, fingerprinting represented the cornerstone of judicial evidence, first popularised by western law enforcement agencies. This being the case, it is remarkable that so few realise that the origins of fingerprint classification are Indian. 

Indeed, the world’s first fingerprint bureau was established in Calcutta in 1897. This is because the earliest methodology for fingerprint classification was developed by two Indian police officers, Sub-Inspectors Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. 

Picture attribution: Tholarbod. CC 4.0

It has taken over a century for history to fully acknowledge their contributions. 

The credit for the invention originally fell to their British supervisor, Sir Edward Richard Henry, the then Inspector General of Police of Bengal, explaining why the system was named Henry’s System of Fingerprint Classification. Henry wasn’t the first or last Englishman to take credit for the efforts of British colonial subjects, but this seems a particularly egregious case, given that the system found worldwide acclaim, revolutionised criminal investigation, and delivered fame and fortune to its supposed inventor.

Who were these two remarkable men? How did they arrive at their invention?

The use of fingerprints as a means of identification was first considered in the mid-19th century following Sir William James Herschel’s discovery that human fingerprints remain stable over time and are unique to individuals. He was, at the time, a Chief Magistrate in the Bengal region of British India. In 1877, he established the use of fingerprints as a means of identification and for signing legal documents. However, there was no means by which such fingerprint records could be methodically filed and searched.

In 1897 Haque and Bose were working in the Anthropometric Bureau in Calcutta – anthropometry was the system used at the time to organise criminal records in Bengal by the British Indian police force, a meticulous method of measuring body parts for the use of identifying criminals. It was, needless to say, inefficient, and not very accurate.

At the time, Henry was considering the use of fingerprints for the purposes of criminal record-keeping. In 1896, he ordered the Bengal Police to collect prisoners’ fingerprints, in addition to their body-part measurements. Henry wanted to develop a classification system for these records. He asked Haque and Bose to work on the problem.

A fingerprint classification system groups fingerprints according to their characteristics and thus is instrumental in the matching of a single fingerprint against a large database of prints. 

The Henry Classification system used three basic fingerprint patterns: loop, whorl, and arch – the so-called friction ridge patterns. A query fingerprint using the system allowed the easier retrieval of paper records in large collections based on these characteristics. (In the modern era, computerization has changed how fingerprints are used. But prior to the advent of computer databases manual filing systems were used as fingerprint repositories.)

It was Haque who came up with the mathematical formula that underpins the system, and Bose who helped him refine it. 

Haque and Bose’s efforts did not go completely unrewarded. The British government, on Henry’s recommendation, recognised their contributions with an honorarium of five thousand rupees apiece, a healthy sum for the time.    

Nevertheless, Henry was loathe to speak publicly of their contribution. 

Presenting a paper on the classification system in 1899 before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he failed to acknowledge the contribution of Haque and Bose. A year later the paper was expanded into a book entitled Classification and Uses of Fingerprints, gaining widespread traction. Again, not a word of credit for Haque or Bose. 

Rumour has it that Haque once stated to a colleague that Henry did not even fully understand the system that he was so busy convincing the world he had invented. Of course, there was little the Indians could do about the matter. This was colonial India in a nutshell. 

In 1897, fingerprinting replaced anthropometry in British India. Four years later Sir Henry returned to Britain and was appointed Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, establishing the first UK fingerprint bureau there. 

The Henry Classification system remained the basis for fingerprint classification until the early 1990s, until replaced by modern approaches. 

Today, the contributions of Haque and Bose are finally being recognised.   

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here. 

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