History of the Polygraph

Polygraph in action
7th June 2016

The first polygraph was created in 1921, when a California-based policeman and physiologist John A. Larson devised an apparatus to simultaneously measure continuous changes in blood pressure, heart rate and respiration rate in order to aid in the detection of. The invention of the polygraph cannot be, however, attributed to a single individual. Seven years prior, in 1914, Italian psychologist Vittorio Benussi had published his findings on the respiratory symptoms of the lie, it was an American psychologist, lawyer and author William M. Marston who invented the discontinuous systolic blood pressure test for the detection of deception in 1915, which, when taken together, formed the basis for Larson’s polygraph.

The polygraph first came into significant contact with the legal system in 1923, when Marston attempted to have the results of a polygraph test admitted as evidence (United States v. Frye, 1923). The court rejected the results as evidence, stating that ‘while the courts will go a long way in admitting experimental testimony deduced from a well-recognised scientific principle or discovery, the thing from which the deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs. This became known as the Frye Standard, which would govern the admissibility of expert testimony in US courts until well after the end of the Cold War.1

The vast majority of early polygraph research was conducted by John Larson, who worked for the Berkley, California, police department throughout the 1920s. Berkley Police Chief August Vollmer saw Larson’s work as a means to significantly improve the effectiveness of his department, and thus allowed Larson to test and refine his polygraph through work on real cases (Carte & Carte, 1975). Vollmer’s focus on the polygraph’s practical value over any other concerns was something that would come to be a common stance within law enforcement in the US. Larson’s early work benefited from the aid of his then-protégée Leonarde Keeler, who is often credited with the creation of the first polygraph testing procedures, such as the Relevant/Irrelevant Question Technique. Keeler was responsible for making the polygraph apparatus portable and was the first to add the galvanic skin response (GSR) channel to it in 1938, based on the work of Fordham University Graduate School psychologist Reverend Walter G. Summers (Summers, 1936). Keeler, however, did not share Larson’s dedication to academia, but rather desired financial and commercial success. To this end, Keeler patented his polygraph, became one of the first to found a ‘polygraph school’ and went so far as to appear as himself in the 1948 noir film Call Northside 777 (Alder, 2007; Matte, 1996).

Prior to his death in 1949, Keeler contributed greatly towards the popularity of the polygraph, much like Marston did, but also became one of the first of many to focus purely on the polygraph’s lucrative potential at the expense of any academic contribution. Following Keeler’s death, the polygraph’s history continued unabated with John E. Reid, who is known for the controversial ‘Reid Technique’ of interviewing/interrogation. Reid did not only establish his own polygraph school, but developed the CQT, the polygraph testing procedure that replaced Keeler’s Relevant/Irrelevant question technique as the most widely used technique, which it remains to date.