Blue Line

Established and Respected

November 17, 2011  By Morley Lymburner

An arrest 24 years ago in New Orleans helped usher in the age of computerized fingerprint identification. A 21-year-old woman was shot and killed during an attempted robbery and rape and her boyfriend seriously injured. Two fingerprints lifted from the back window of their car were entered into the police department’s new automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS).

The system, developed by De LaRue Printrak Inc., searched the one million prints on file and selected eight candidates. The fingerprint examiner compared them and made a positive identification. The total process took minutes. New Orleans Police arrested the suspect and charged him with seven murders, eight rapes and more than 20 armed robberies.

It was the first arrest leading to a conviction using the new technology, which owes a lot to history and the dogged determination of a dedicated breed of people. Who they are and the science they used to the benefit of society will be explained in this article.

{Edward Foster} 


This year marks the 100th anniversary of fingerprinting in Canada. The recognition of the expertise of the late RCMP Insp. Edward Foster, the founder of Canadian fingerprinting, is an important part of this anniversary.

Foster established the Canadian Criminal Identification Bureau in Ottawa in 1911 but, strangely enough, first gave fingerprint evidence in Chicago some five years earlier.  

This case against Thomas Jennings, charged with murder, was quite slim with the exception of fingerprints. There was little doubt that if the prints were not admitted, the case was lost. Chicago Police decided to call in some of the world’s greatest experts, including Foster.

The inspector presented the case in favour of the scientific reliability of fingerprints. Under cross examination the defence attorney attempted to discredit the evidence. He began by asking if the local ident officer could raise fingerprints from the rough surface of the desk he had his hands on. Foster advised the court that he could not. Flushed by this success, the defence then asked if prints could be raised off of a piece of paper; told they could, the attorney challenged Foster to demonstrate.  

Foster got out his powder, dusted the paper and produced the attorney’s prints. The jury appeared quite impressed – so much so that the defense attorney spilled water over the paper to destroy the demonstration. It was to no effect. The judge ruled the fingerprint evidence admissible. The accused was found guilty and hung on December 22nd, 1911.

{The early history}

Fingerprints have been used sporadically throughout history to seal contracts. Their earliest known use can be traced to a Sumerian cuneiform cylinder outlining a trade contract around 2000 B.C. One of the earliest known European publications of fingerprint observation was offered in 1684 by Dr. Nehemiah Grew of England. Grew made an intense study of the skin and minutely described the pores and ridges. 

Two years later, in 1686, another scientific paper appeared under the name of Marcello Malpighi of Italy. The research work of this man was of such outstanding importance that one of the layers of human skin now bears his name.

In 1788, a German doctor named Mayer was the first to make the statement that fingerprints are not duplicated by nature. The next major step was made by German university student Evangelist Purkinje, who classified nine major groups of fingerprints.

{The road to judicial notice}

It wasn’t until 1858 that Sir William Herschel, an assistant employed by the Old East India Company of Bengal, used a fingerprint impression to seal a road surfacing contract with a “Hindoo” man in the interior of Bengal. The man’s signature appeared to be so contrived that he decided to have the contract signed with both of their palm prints. He reported this to the Royal Society and Sir Francis Galton.

Galton was a big supporter of Herschel’s theory that a persons fingerprints do not change their pattern throughout a lifetime. They proved this using their own prints over a period of some 31 years. Another collection was started to prove a theory of persistency between 1858 and 1913. During this time the theory became well accepted by the public but not the judiciary.

Herschel’s efforts provided the foundation upon which Galton based his investigations around 1880. He began to build a classification system, which he wrote about in his book <Fingerprints,> published in 1893. 

Sir Edward Henry, inspector general of the lower provinces of India, read the book with great interest. He found some flaws in the categorization of fingerprints as written and set about to refine the system with great efficiency. The “Henry” system was then immortalized and is universally accepted.

{Bertillon vs. fingerprints}

Fingerprints had a real problem. They had to compete with the “Bertillon” system, which had been used and had been more readily accepted by police forces worldwide since 1879. It was based on anthropometric measurements of the adult body. An arrested person was measured in certain areas; notes were taken and placed on a file card. The system required measuring the person’s height, head, length of the middle finger of the left hand and left foot and the elbow to elbow measurement of crossed arms.

Canada’s Parliament passed the Identification of Criminals Act, which provided that all persons charged with an indictable offence be subjected to the Bertillon method, in 1898.

The system had many drawbacks. Many cards were misfiled, measurements were taken in a shoddy manner and differences would occur as people aged. There were also many cases of people being convicted and spending many years in jail only to have the guilty person come forth and confess. Invariably they found the measurements of both to be quite close.

The Bertillon method was only useful in cases where the court wished to prove a previous record and had no real investigative value. It never got off the ground because there were ample rumours it was fast being outdistanced by the fingerprint system. In 1908 the old act was replaced and the fingerprint system and photograph was instituted.

{Canadian experience}

Fingerprints were first introduced in Scotland Yard in 1901. In 1904 it sent John Ferrier to the St.Louis World’s Fair to guard the Crown Jewels and he talked to then Cst. Foster of the Dominion Police of Canada about the science of fingerprints.

There are probably two other people who bear some influence on this part of Canadian history – Mrs. M.E. Holland, wife of the editor of the and Dominion Police Commissioner Sir Percy Sherwood. Holland, a detective in her own right, was attending the IACP convention in St. Louis with her husband and also became fascinated with fingerprinting. Her husband arranged a meeting between Foster and Ferrier. 

Foster’s experience convinced him that a similar organization in Canada would do much to encourage national interest and co-operation in fingerprinting. It would also help to bond all police forces together with a common technology. He talked with Sherwood and found a source of knowledge and encouragement.

{Toronto Police connection}

Percy believed Toronto Police D/Chief Cst. Stark would be an ideal man to interest in the project and subsequently told Foster he had received an enthusiastic response. An organizational meeting of the newly proposed group was held Sept. 6, 1905 in Toronto and one year later came the first positive action toward the founding of a national fingerprint bureau for Canada.

Opposition stalled Foster’s plans and would have discouraged a less dedicated man, but he was in truth a “man with a mission.” With the support of his chief, the project was kept before the government. On July 21, 1908, an order in council was passed sanctioning the use of the fingerprint system and making the provisions of the Identification of Criminals Act applicable to it.

The first Toronto Police Identification Bureau was formed in 1867, at which time records were kept only by name and physical description. The records were augmented by the introduction of the criminal photograph in 1894.

Sgt. Duncan, a self taught fingerprint expert, started the Toronto collection in 1906 with 88 print sets. In 1911 Toronto handed over its entire collection to the Dominion Police (later to be amalgamated with the then  RNWMP).

The first conviction in Canada solely on fingerprint evidence was recorded on April 25, 1932. The testimony was given by O.E. Borland, who later became the Toronto police chief identification officer from 1943 to 1960.

{The computer age}

With the advent of the “computer age” a study began in 1965 to devise a system to search fingerprints using the speed of the new equipment. Many agencies throughout the world had attempted to perfect a system but by 1971 the Metropolitan Toronto Police Identification Bureau had its system in full operation. Its method of searching was studied by identification bureaus from Canada, the United States, Scotland Yard and New Zealand. These search principles were adopted in whole or in part by many and modern computer technology owes much to the labours of this branch.

The identification of a fingerprint, regardless of technology, still depends on the personal viewing of the fingerprint by someone who has received extensive training and experience in this specialized work. Technology has made great strides in eliminating the tedious task of searching and classifying fingerprints. Experts today can spend more valuable time in searching and screening through larger and larger numbers of prints in search for the true culprits. 

The RCMP was the first in Canada to obtain AFIS technology. Toronto police took delivery of an identical system late in 1988 and made it possible for agencies with identical equipment to link in. York Regional Police was the first to do so late in 1990. 


Many positive identifications have been made over the years as ident officers scanned their case files to clear off old cases. Companies soon turned to digitized mug shots and computerized photo enhancing to further aid law enforcement.

It is hard to believe that it all started in the mid nineteenth century with a British company executive’s distrust of a local contractor’s signature.

Computerization has seen the contents of more than 120 old filing cabinets filled with latent fingerprint cards digitally shrunk to fit on a few hard drives. The more than 80 million individual fingerprints can be searched in seconds. When there is a match, however, it still must be examined in the old fashioned way through the eyes and talent of fingerprint examiners just like Edward Foster.


Resource information is based on articles from (first published in March 1991) and and information from the Toronto Police Identification Bureau and Motorola Printrak International.

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