William James Herschel – A Fingerprint Pioneer

Born: 9 January 1833 Slough

Died: 24 October 1917


Herschel (1833-1917) was one of the first to advocate for the use of fingerprinting in criminal suspect identification. In 1858, while working for the Indian Civil Service, he started using thumbprints on papers as a security measure to prevent signature repudiation.

William James Herschel
Sir William Hershel

Sir William James Herschel, 2nd Baronet (January 9, 1833 – October 24, 1917) was a British officer in India who used fingerprints for contract identification. He was the son of astronomer John Herschel and was born in Slough, Buckinghamshire (now Berkshire). He was the grandson of astronomer William Herschel and the son of astronomer, John Herschel. He lived in Warfield, Berkshire. His father encouraged him to pursue a career other than astronomy, so he joined the East India Company and was assigned to Bengal in 1853. Herschel joined the Indian Civil Service after the Indian Mutiny in 1858 and was sent to Jungipoor.

Alexander Stewart Herschel and John Herschel the Younger were his younger brothers.

He married (Anne) Emma Haldane, the youngest daughter of Alfred Hardcastle of Hatcham House, Surrey, on May 19, 1864. She died at the birth of their second son, after having given birth to four children for him:

Margaret Eliza Emma Herschel (1865–1880) was a woman who lived from 1865 to 1880. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor at a young age. Reverend Sir John Charles William Herschel, 3rd Baronet (1869–1950) Emma Dorothea Herschel (1867–1954) Herschel, Arthur Edward Hardcastle (1873–1924) He lived in Berkshire’s Warfield and Oxfordshire’s Littlemore. The baronetcy passed to his son when he died.

Early life

Herschel’s father was a musician in the army. The young man followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Hanoverian Guards’ band. He traveled to England during the French takeover of Hanover in 1757, where he originally made a living by copying music. But, as a music teacher, performer, and composer, he rapidly enhanced his position until, in 1766, he was chosen organist of a famous chapel in Bath, the well-known spa. By this time, his father’s intellectual curiosity had led him away from the practice and into music theory, which he studied in Robert Smith’s Harmonics. From this book, he turned to Smith’s A Compleat System of Opticks, which introduced him to the techniques of telescope construction and whetted his appetite for viewing the night sky.

William, who combined obstinacy with boundless energy, was not content to observe the nearby Sun, Moon, and planets, as nearly all astronomers of his time did, but was determined to study the distant celestial bodies as well, and he realized he’d need telescopes with large mirrors to collect enough light—larger than opticians could supply at a reasonable cost. He was forced to grind his mirrors soon after. They were made from copper, tin, and antimony metal discs in various proportions.

In 1781, his ambitions outran the capabilities of the local foundries, so he prepared to cast molten metal into discs in the basement of his own home. However, the first mirror cracked on cooling, and the metal ran out onto the flagstones on the second attempt, forcing him to accept temporary defeat. His later, more successful attempts resulted in ever-larger, superior-quality mirrors, and his telescopes outperformed even those employed at the Greenwich Observatory. He also created his eyepieces, the most powerful of which had a magnification power of 6,450 times.

His brother Alexander, who had traveled from Hanover, and his sister Caroline, who had been his faithful assistant for much of his career, assisted him in his research at Bath. Scientific circles began to hear about this remarkable family. He performed two preliminary telescopic scans of the sky. Then, in 1781, while conducting his third and most thorough examination of the night sky, William came across an object that he recognized as not being a regular star.

It turned out to be the planet Uranus, which was discovered for the first time in prehistoric times. William gained a lot of attention in a short period. His friend Dr. William Watson, Jr. presented him to the Royal Society of London, which awarded him the Copley Medal and made him a Fellow for his discovery of Uranus. Watson also assisted him in obtaining a £200 annual pension from George III in 1782. As a result, he could give up music and concentrate purely on astronomy. The Herschels relocated to Datchet, near Windsor Castle, after William was appointed as an astronomer to George III.

William worked night after night to build a “natural history” of the skies, even though he was 43 years old when he became a professional astronomer. The nature of nebulae, which appear as brilliant patches in the sky, was a basic problem for which Herschel’s large telescopes were ideally adapted. Some astronomers assumed they were nothing more than massive clusters of stars whose light merged to create a milky appearance. Some people believed that some nebulae were made up of a luminous fluid. In the winter of 1781–82, when William became interested in nebulae, he discovered that his most powerful telescope could resolve some nebulae that appeared “milky” to less well-equipped viewers into stars.

With more powerful telescopes, he believed that other nebulae will eventually be resolved into individual stars. This prompted him to argue in 1784 and 1785 that all nebulae are made up of stars and that there was no need to hypothesize the presence of a mysterious luminous fluid to explain the observed facts. He claimed that nebulae that could not yet be resolved were very distant systems and that because they appear massive to the viewer, their true size must be enormous—possibly even larger than the star system in which the Sun is a part. William was driven to believe in the existence of “island universes” of stars as a result of this reasoning.

A Valuable Contribution in Field of Fingerprints

Herschel is credited with being the first European to recognize the importance of fingerprints in identifying individuals. He understood that fingerprints were one-of-a-kind and permanent. To show the permanence of his fingerprints, Herschel kept a record of them throughout his life. He is also credited with being the first to employ fingerprints practically. He began putting fingerprints on contracts in the 1850s while serving as a British officer for the Indian Civil Service in the Bengal region of India.

Following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which transferred Bengal directly to British rule, Herschel began using complete handprints as a signature on contracts in 1858. (the British Raj, ending control by the British East India Company). The first person Herschel handprinted was local businessman Rajyadhar Konai, allegedly to convince Konai to honor a contract he had signed rather than as a means of identification; it was only later that he seriously considered the efficacy of fingerprints as identification.

Herschel continued to play about with handprints, eventually figuring out that all he needed were his fingers. He gathered fingerprints from friends and family and discovered that fingerprints do not change over time. He proposed to the Bengal governor that fingerprints be placed on legal documents to avoid impersonation and contract repudiation, but his recommendation was ignored.

Herschel was appointed Magistrate of Hooghly in 1877. He ordered the collection of fingerprints from retirees to prevent imposters from collecting their pensions. He also started fingerprinting criminals so that a hired impersonator couldn’t carry out their penalties.

In 1878, Herschel returned to England, and in 1880, he wrote a letter in ‘Nature’ explaining his fingerprinting experiences. In 1916, the year before he died, he published ‘The Origin of Fingerprinting,’ a description of his work.

Even though he invented fingerprinting, Herschel only ever utilized it for administrative purposes. He had no idea it could be used to arrest criminals; it was Francis Galton and Edward Henry, who built on Herschel’s foundations and converted fingerprinting into a tool for fighting crime.

One of the first Europeans to appreciate the significance of fingerprints for identification purposes was William James Herschel. In the 1850s and 1860s, he began using fingerprints and handprints instead of signatures in his work as a magistrate in colonial India. Later, he worked with scientist Francis Galton, whose research led to the creation of the first fingerprint classification system, which Scotland Yard deployed in 1901. Fingerprints had always attracted Herschel’s interest.

Francis Galton, a British physicist, and Charles Darwin’s cousin became interested in the dispute in 1892. Galton wrote Finger Prints, a book in which he established the uniqueness of fingerprints and proposed a classification system for them. Galton publicly supported Herschel, and as a result, Galton and Herschel became widely recognized as the two key pioneers in fingerprint collection. Years later, the scientific world acknowledged Faulds’ achievements.

Herschel’s life and study, as one of the forefathers of fingerprint identification, have been well-documented in various books and journal articles, notably Chandak Sengupta’s 2003 Imprint of the Raj.

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