Home News Stories 2007 November FBI Laboratory Turns 75

FBI Laboratory Turns 75

Sleuths of Science
The FBI Laboratory Turns 75

Yesterday and Today:  Our first crime lab, shown here in the early 1930s, was located in a single room. Today's FBI Laboratory is housed in a state-of-the-art building in Quantico, Virginia.
Yesterday and Today: Our first crime lab, shown here in the early 1930s, was
located in a single room. Today’s FBI Laboratory is housed in a state-of-the-art
building in Quantico, Virginia.


11/02/07

Breaking secret codes. Uncovering nearly invisible fingerprints. Matching tiny paint chips to a hit-and-run driver’s car. Comparing countless handwriting samples to find that one check forger. Peering into the nucleus of a cell to determine guilt or innocence. Linking exploded bomb fragments to terrorists. Analyzing the splatter of blood at a crime scene.

It’s all in a day’s work for the men and women of the FBI Laboratory, who have been using science to solve crimes for three quarters of a century now.

Cryptanalysis, the art and science of breaking secret codes and ciphers, has been around for some four centuries.
Cryptanalysis, the art and science of breaking
secret codes and ciphers, has been around for
some four centuries.

A Lab is born. It was 75 years ago this month—on November 24, 1932, officially—that we launched our first technical crime lab, the forerunner of today’s FBI Laboratory. It started small: a single agent, in a single room, with some basic equipment and supplies. Today, it’s a full-service operation, with some 500 scientific experts and special agents working in a state-of-the-art, standalone building in rural Virginia, traveling the world over on assignment when needed and leading highly trained teams of specialists across the nation.

What has 75 years wrought? A ton of solved crimes, for starters. And plenty of important contributions in plenty of famous cases—the “Nazi Saboteurs”, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, the bombing of Pan Am 103, the “Falcon and the Snowman” espionage case, the 9/11 investigation, to name just a few. Not to mention a lot of innovative research and training that has lifted all boats in the law enforcement and criminal justice communities.

That’s really just the beginning of the story. We have a great deal more information on the FBI Laboratory on this website—including some brand new material—that we invite you to explore.

  • Check out our newly redesigned and updated FBI Laboratory website, covering the gamut of work done by our Lab professionals, from our evidence response experts to our HAZMAT teams.
  • For a soup to nuts history, see The FBI Laboratory: 75 Years of Forensic Science Service by the managing editor of Forensic Science Communications (itself a service of the Lab). The recent article includes our role in many major cases and a number of historic photos.
  • How did the Lab get started? See The Birth of the FBI’s Technical Laboratory: 1924 to 1935 to find out.
  • For a brief chronology, take a look at the newly posted list of major Lab milestones.
  • An infrared photograph reveals the contents of a suicide note
    Here, an infrared photograph reveals the
    contents of a stained suicide note.

    Here, an infrared photograph reveals the contents of a stained suicide note.

  • It was the young Lab’s first major case: the kidnapping of the infant son of the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. Check out the ransom note!

  • A fun “who ‘dunnit case” from our files: Did You Ever See a Shoe Trap a Burglar?

  • Sometimes the best evidence is buried at the bottom of the ocean. Read all about our “dive teams.”
  • The tiniest of clues—shards of glass, strands of hair and fur, paint chips, soil clods, feathers, rocks and minerals, building materials of all kinds—often make the biggest difference in a case. Learn about our Trace Evidence Unit.

Later this month, we’ll test your ability to crack a basic cipher.