The polygraph has been there, as well, in more reality-style works of culture. The show Lie Detector, broadcast in 2005, used polygraphs in the service of finding, it claimed, “the truth behind real-life stories ripped from the headlines.” (The show’s premiere episode featured the examination-by-polygraph of Paula Jones, one of the women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.) From 2008 to 2009, the game show The Moment of Truth asked contestants hooked to a polygraph to answer a series of 21 questions of escalating embarrassment in exchange for prizes. Earlier this month, Vanity Fair hooked Jennifer Lawrence up to a lie detector for a stunt that doubled as a very literal take on investigative journalism. In a wood-paneled room, an unseen and extremely austere questioner asked the actor things like, “Would you date someone shorter than you?” (Yes) and “Should pineapple ever be on pizza?” (No—never) and “Do you know anyone in the Illuminati?” (No) and “Are you in the Illuminati?” (No).
“Were Ross and Rachel really on a break?” the disembodied voice asked Lawrence, fastidious and facetious at the same time. “Yes,” she replied, emphatically. The picture-in-picture screen displaying the needles of the polygraph as they quivered in reaction to Lawrence’s answers seemed to confirm it: She was telling the truth.
In his fantastic book The Truth Machine: A Social History of the Lie Detector, Geoffrey C. Bunn argues that the history of the lie detector doubles as the history of an attempt to contend with the rise of mass culture: the machine, as a manifestation of a widespread desire for order in an age of tumult. The device, Bunn suggests, is in many ways a work of science fiction that lurks, awkwardly, in the present reality—a machine that has been, from the beginning, in dialogue with pop culture and its myths.
The first recorded use of the term lie detector came in a work of fiction: Charles Walk’s 1909 novel, The Yellow Circle. But the scientific significance of such a machine was also heralded, breathlessly and often prematurely, in the American press. “A few years hence,” The New York Times wrote just before Walk provided a term for the device it described, “no innocent person will be kept in jail, nor, on the other hand, will any guilty person cheat the demands of justice.” The paper talked about machines that would accomplish the “curing” of liars, and—via a 1907 headline—“reduce knowledge of truth to exact science.” Collier’s, later, made a similar pronouncement: “The future looks dark for liars,” it announced in August of 1924, “for those scientific men now have a lie detector that actually works.”
It’s fitting, perhaps, that the circumstances surrounding the work of those scientific men are themselves in dispute. There are three principal figures who claim to have invented the machine Collier’s enthused about—and who fought each other for the credit, through battles waged in, primarily, the American media. There was William Moulton Marston, a professor, lawyer, and scientist whose graduate work had involved conceiving of ways to measure human emotion and who had created the systolic blood pressure test that could be used, he argued, to determine duplicity. There was Leonarde Keeler, a detective who created a portable machine—a metal bellows, a motor drive, a pneumograph to surround the chest, and a mechanical indicator to record a subject’s answers to questions—to be used by police departments looking for relatively reliable (and relatively humane) ways to interrogate suspects. There was John Augustus Larson, the police officer who created a “cardio-pneumo psychogram” for the same purpose.