Biometrics: Ancient History

The concept behind biometrics goes back thousands of years, even more if you consider that humankind has almost been hardwired with it since the dawn of evolution. The ability to see, categorize and store unique personal features in order to recognize other humans is key to our entire civilization.

We have relied on our innate ability to differentiate people by height, weight, skin tone, hair color, eye color, even seemingly imperceptible differences in symmetry and shape, to help us make sense of the world, make friends, do business, even recognize danger. It was only when villages grew into cities and populations began to boom that we needed to stretch beyond these natural abilities and create systems and procedures to keep track across large swaths of people.

To truly understand how we got to the technological advancements we enjoy today, we need to go back to our roots. This is where we will begin, in Part 1 – “Biometrics: Ancient History.”

The term “biometrics” comes from the Greek words “bio” (life) and “metrics” (measure). It incorporates any method of identity verification based on measuring a person’s physical characteristics. Many of our modern, computer-automated processes are based on ideas that originated eons ago. Here’s how they developed.

B.C.

Biometrics: BC

Biometrics: BC

  • The first known examples of identifying oneself by “biometric” characteristics are cave handprints, the oldest of which was discovered in Cáceres, Spain. Using the uranium-thorium method, it was dated to more than 64,000 years old and was made by a Neanderthal.
  • In a cave estimated to be at least 31,000 years old, numerous handprints surround the artistic paintings created by the prehistoric people who lived there. It is thought that these handprints acted as the signature of their artists.
  • Early Egyptians identified the reputations of traders they knew by physical descriptions versus those new to the market.

1300s

Biometrics: 1300s

Biometrics: 1300s

  • The 14th century Persian book, Jaamehol-Tawarikh, includes excerpts related to the practice of identifying individuals through their fingerprints.
  • Joao de Barros, an explorer and writer from Spain, wrote that Chinese merchants used fingerprints to settle business transactions. Chinese parents also used fingerprints and footprints to differentiate children from one another.

1600s

Biometrics: 1600s

Biometrics: 1600s

  • In 1684, Dr. Nehemiah Grew published friction ridge skin observations in the “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London” paper.
  • The 1685 book, “Anatomy of the Human Body” by Govard Bidloo, also described friction ridge skin details.
  • In 1686, University of Bologna anatomy professor Marcello Malpighi noted fingerprint ridges, spirals and loops in his dissertation.

1700s

Biometrics: 1700s

Biometrics: 1700s

  • In 1788, German anatomist and doctor J.C.A. Mayer wrote “Anatomical Copper-plates with Appropriate Explanations.” In it, he included drawings of friction ridge skin patterns, and noted that “although the arrangement of skin ridges is never duplicated in two persons, nevertheless the similarities are closer among some individuals.” He was the first to declare that friction ridge skin details are unique across people.

1800s

Biometrics: 1800s

Biometrics: 1800s

By the mid-1800s, cities grew rapidly with better farming and the boom of the industrial revolution. With more people in more concentrated areas, there was an enormous need to identify them. Local, individual knowledge was no longer enough.

 

Influenced by the writings of Utilitarian thinkers like Jeremy Bentham, the courts began to set concepts of justice in stone, many of which are still used today – such as being more lenient on first time offenders and harsher on repeat ones. Thus, a system to record offenses and assign them to individuals based on their exact identity was needed.

 

  • In 1858, Sir William Herschel employed the first systematic capture of finger and hand images for identity verification. He did this while working in India’s Civil Service, recording employees’ handprints on the back of their worker contracts – by doing so, he could tell real employees versus imposters on payday.
  • In 1870s Paris, Alphonse Bertillon developed a new biometric method, known as anthropometries or Bertillonage. It classified criminals based on their body measurements (height, arm length, and other parameters) and physical descriptions, which were written on cards, in addition to photographs. This helped capture repeat offenders who often gave different names to law enforcement. While an imperfect system, due to the fact that many people have similar body measurements, it became the launching catalyst for using scientific methods to record physical characteristics to authenticate identity.
  • In the 1880s, fingerprints became a method to identify criminals and sign contracts. It is during this decade that we can attribute Edward Henry with the development of the Henry Classification System standard, which quickly phased out Bertillon’s methods. It was a robust system for indexing fingerprints developed in India by Azizul Haque who served for Henry as Inspector General of Police in Bengal. Henry later established the first British fingerprint files in London and variations of this system are still in use around the world today.
  • In 1892, Sir Francis Galton authored an in-depth study of fingerprints. In it, he suggested a classification system that used prints from all 10 fingers. The characteristics that Galton used to identify people are still in use today. In fact, it was the precursor to the classification system used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other criminal justice organizations that perform tenprint fingerprint searches.
  • In 1896, Henry collaborated with Galton to devise a method of classifying and storing fingerprint information so it could be used more efficiently on a larger scale.

1900s

Biometrics: 1900s

Biometrics: 1900s

The 1900s is where things get really exciting. Science was propelled at an astonishing pace thanks to the adoption of the global electric grid, the invention of television and personal computers, the space race, the internet, and all the everyday advancements we have at our fingertips today. Because this rapid-fire technological revolution is so detailed, we’ll break it up into the early twentieth century and explore mid-1900s to the 2000s in the next part of our series. This is how or previous century began, just a stone’s throw away from where we are today.

 

  • In July 1901, the Fingerprint Branch of New Scotland Yard (also known as the Metropolitan Police) was created using the Henry System of Fingerprint Classification.
  • In 1903, the New York Civil Service Commission began fingerprinting applicants to prevent fraud. The practice was then adopted by the New York state prison system in regards to criminal identification.
  • In 1904, the U.S. Penitentiary in Kansas and the St. Louis police department both set up fingerprint bureaus. From here, fingerprinting and its various usages, spread like wildfire – leaving their impressions, so to speak, on human history forever.
  • 1936, ophthalmologist Frank Burch had an exciting new idea. He first proposed using iris patterns as an identification method. It was a novel idea that would prove powerful in the second half of the century.

Biometrics was on an unbelievable trajectory throughout this century, leading to spectacular innovations like retinal scanning, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Learn about all of this and more in Part 2 of this series, “Biometrics: Modern History.”