At this stage, Bunn’s social history crosses the Atlantic to the new world, where the challenge was met and the twentieth-century legend of the lie detector was born. At least three people claimed the glory for inventing the machine during the 1920s: William Marston, a lawyer-psychologist from Boston; John Larson, a police scientist from Berkeley, California; and Leonard Keeler, a poet’s son and a technical man, who was recruited to help Larson. The intense rivalry that evolved between these three characters fueled much of the early historiography of the lie detector, which has been busy arbitrating their competing claims.
The story of the lie detector takes us straight into the dark recesses of the American soul. It also leads us on a noir journey through some of the most storied episodes in American history. That is because the device we take for granted as an indicator of guilt or innocence actually tells us more about our beliefs than our deeds. The machine does not measure deception so much as feelings of guilt or shame. As Ken Alder reveals in his fascinating and disturbing account, the history of the lie detector exposes fundamental truths about our culture: why we long to know the secret thoughts of our co-citizens; why we believe in popular science; and why America embraced the culture of “truthiness.”