Day 23: The Fingerprint Man

originally published January 23, 2012

Every so often a hero goes unnoticed. Azizul Haque is one of these heroes. He lived and died before I was born, but his effect upon my life has been truly significant – he’s the guy whose life’s work made me remember to wear gloves when I beat that anonymous hobo to death with a table leg yesterday, in a rage after the Patriots made it back to the Super Bowl. No police have come to my door, mainly because (a) it was an anonymous hobo, and (b) I left behind no fingerprints.

Like any worthy hero, Azizul Haque can and should be compared to Batman. Like Batman, Haque’s parents were killed when he was young. It was a ‘boat accident’ in his case, but it’s more interesting to say that they were murdered by destiny.

Haque’s mathematical skills earned him a quality education, and he subsequently joined the Calcutta Police force. You see? He’s like Batman, fighting injustice.

In 1892, Haque was recruited by Edward Henry to work on the fingerprints project. Haque started playing around with the system they had in place, a painstaking system devised by Francis Galton. Haque came up with a formula that sorted fingerprint patterns into simpler pigeonholes, based on a system of dividing the prints into 32 rows and 32 columns. It sounds complicated, but it needed no math and no measurements, and it was a lot less prone to error than Galton’s. Instead of an hour matching up prints with the ones on file, Haque’s system took about five minutes.

Haque was hailed as a hero, and his name lives on forever in the annals of law enforcement. No wait, that would be too easy.

Edward Henry, who was simply overjoyed at Haque’s success, showed his appreciation by taking 100% of the credit for the system’s discovery. Word travelled back to England that Eddie Henry was the fingerprint maestro who came up with his inspiration out of nowhere, on a train, waist-deep in Indian moonshine and five-rupee prostitutes. The system, which is still used today all over the world, came to be known as the Henry Classification System.

Science!

I know. What a dick. He even netted a knighthood out of this little deception. “Why bother?” he must have thought. “This silly little Indian man with his silly little Indian mustache probably has no use for fame and fortune!”

Haque went on about his life, marrying his cousin and having a bushel-full of kids. Batman doesn’t want the fame. He helped to put ne’er-do-wells behind bars and saved the good people of Gotham, or in this case, Calcutta (which is probably pretty much just like Gotham).

Pretty much.

Eventually, Haque came to notice that every police department in the British-run world (which was a lot of the world at the time) was utilizing this method – the so-called “Henry System” – of fingerprint identification. He asked for a bit of recognition, and Henry kindly acknowledged that yeah, Haque may have had something to do with the process.

Decades later, the press in India started to murmur that Galton, Haque and another of their contemporaries, Hem Chandra Bose, were getting short-changed for their contributions. In 1925, the official newspaper of India prompted a letter-writing campaign to get these guys some notice.

A year later, when asked to endorse an honorarium from the British government to Haque, Sir Edward Henry stated that Haque did contribute “in a conspicuous degree”, and really more than anyone else on Henry’s staff. Haque got his recognition and that was that. Almost. His descendants have lobbied tirelessly to get the official name changed to the Henry-Haque-Bose Classification System, but to no avail. Since most people just know it as “fingerprinting”, does it really matter?

They should have fought it out on Fingerprint Island.

So what’s the big deal with this system? What made it so much more efficient than the system they were using before? I’m glad you asked; I still have about 350 words left to write today, and I was worried I’d have to slip back into haiku mode.

First off, this system is not like the über-fast computer system they use on CSI: Miami, which identifies the perpetrator in less time than it takes for David Caruso to whip off his sunglasses and say something smug and threatening.

The Henry-Haque-Bose System (fight the power!) is all about eliminating suspects, not necessarily identifying them. You first classify the fingerprint by pattern type – the swirls, the zig-zags, the asymmetrical inkblot designs, the ones that form a 3-D image if you relax your eyes a little, and so on. Fingerprints are assigned numbers based on which digit they came from and which pattern classification they fall into. The idea is, once you’ve whittled your hunt down to the right stack of cards, using your eyes to pin down the minor details won’t be so much work.

This system begat the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or the AFIS technology that the TV and movie cops (and, come to think of it, probably the real cops) turn to today. This is the computer database that stores every micro-point of every fingerprint on file. This technology is pushing the Henry-Haque-Bose System into obsolescence, so the fight to have the name officially changed will most likely never be won.

Up until the mid 1990s, a lot of cities and states still had their Henry cards on file, just in case the AFIS system broke down, or was taken over by those red flying things from that first Tron movie. This was a real fear back then.

AFIS was initially modeled after the Henry system, and it was thought that the computer would simply flip through the data already whittled down by the system Haque came up with. Before long, police forces realized that the computer capabilities of AFIS made those little cards useless, and the system fell mostly out of favor in the western world.

There’s a lesson to be learned in this. If a guy’s going for a knighthood, there’s a good chance he’ll screw you over and steal your ideas, regardless of your mustache and spiritual resemblance to Batman. Still, if I have to take out a little more spite and hatred in two weeks because Tom Brady’s inflated head is getting itself another freaking tiara, I’ll thank Azizul Haque for reminding me that I’d best cover up my hands.

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