Who Invented the Lie Detector?

At the moment, I’m reading a book about the creation of Wonder Woman (The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore, if you’re interested), and there’s a lot of talk in it about the invention of the lie detector (but also about feminism and more).

It’s quite interesting and it inspired me to search for more information about some of the subjects Lepore wrote about–I will late probably write articles about them. For now, though, let’s talk about lies!

Who Created the Lie Detector?

If Wonder Woman used a Lasso of Truth to get beyond the lies of men it’s in part because her creator, William Moulton Marston, was obsessed with the subject of the lie detector–or more precisely to be accepted as the creator of the lie detector. To disapprove of the works of others, he said something in the vein of he was the lie detector, the polygraph was just the tool. So, what is a polygraph?

According to Merriam-Webster, “a polygraph is an instrument for simultaneously recording variations of several different pulsations (as of the pulse, blood pressure, and respiration).”

Marston’s Lasso of Truth

Now, let’s go back in time, a bit before Marston invented his lie detector. In the early 20th century, Dr. James Mackenzie, a physician and researcher, created the first ink-writing polygraph to monitor patients’ heartbeats. Featuring rubber tambours attached to the neck and wrist, this device recorded pulse patterns on paper. Mackenzie’s invention laid the foundation for later advancements in lie detection technology.

Inspired by his Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg’s work (his mentor) and his wife Elizabeth’s observation of increased blood pressure during moments of anger, William Moulton Marston developed the “Systolic Blood Pressure Test” in 1921. Marston’s device aimed to measure changes in blood pressure. Marston’s work laid the groundwork for future developments, but his results were not admissible in court.

William Moulton Marston and his lie detector
William Moulton Marston and Olive Byrne conducting a lie detector test in the 1920s.

In fact, Marston tried his hardest to make his lie detector a tool for justice usable in a court of law but failed and left an important mark in the way expert testimony could be used during a trial. In 1921, he tried to establish a man’s innocence, James Alphonso Frye, in a murder trial.

Using his device, Marston wanted to prove that his apparatus was the way to expose the truth, but the judge didn’t want to hear it. Marston was more interested in the future of his invention than of Frye and pushed his lawyers to present the case in front of the supreme court–but the case was not really about Frye, more about the acceptance of the results of a lie detector test.

The “Frye” ruling was created as a result of the court’s refusal to accept the test findings as evidence. For nearly 70 years following the Frye decision, polygraph results could not be used as evidence in court–the introduction of the Daubert ruling in the case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals in 1993 by the U.S. Supreme Court established the Federal Rules of Evidence as the prevailing standard for admitting expert testimony in federal courts, effectively superseding the Frye standard. Despite this shift, some states continue to adhere to the Frye standard in their courtrooms.

As for Marston, he didn’t stop there but his effort led him to be added to J. Edgar Hoover’s watchlist. Years later, he finally made history on a certain level in the world of comic books.

Leonard Keeler’s polygraph

John Augustus Larson, a student of Marston, collaborated with renowned police chief August Vollmer to apply Marston’s device to law enforcement. In 1921, Larson developed a device that recorded both blood pressure and breathing, which was first utilized by the Berkeley Police Department. Larson’s innovation attracted Leonard Keeler, who joined forces with him to improve the lie detector’s portability and incorporate galvanic skin response in 1939.

Leonard Keeler’s Emotograph, introduced in 1924, featured chart paper and ink pens for faster setup and easier storage. Keeler used his device extensively, including a high-profile case in 1937 involving a suspect in the Cleveland torso murders. Despite limitations in admissibility, Keeler’s contributions led to the establishment of the Chicago-based Keeler Polygraph Institute in 1947, the first polygraph school.

Lie detector co-inventor Leonarde Keeler tests his machin
Leonard Keeler tests his Lie detector (Agate Publishing/The Chicago Tribune)

In the wake of Keeler’s passing in 1949, John E. Reid emerged as a key figure in the development of polygraph technology. Reid, a lawyer, psychologist, and police officer, redesigned the Keeler polygraph to his specifications, resulting in the Reid Polygraph.

His most significant contribution, however, came in the form of the questioning technique known as the Reid Technique or Control Question Technique (CQT). This highly effective interrogation strategy became the industry standard and was adopted by renowned intelligence agencies such as the CIA, DOD, and FBI.

Despite its widespread use, the Reid Technique faced controversies, with some individuals claiming false confessions due to the pressure of the test. Critics argued that the questioning technique led to false positives and raised concerns about the reliability and ethics of using polygraph examinations in criminal investigations.

Today, the polygraph continues to be utilized in various law enforcement and intelligence agencies, albeit with ongoing debates surrounding its accuracy and admissibility in court. Researchers and technologists are continually exploring alternative methods for detecting deception, such as brain imaging techniques and voice stress analysis. But nothing can beat Wonder Woman’s lasso!

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