Polygraph science started in the late 1800s. It’s come a long way over the last 150 years of development, and today’s polygraph devices are a true inspiration to the progress of lie detector technology over this period. The first electro-mechanical/analog devices are nothing like the advanced systems of today operating on software and algorithms.
Still, polygraphy had to start somewhere, and the first Americans involved with its development came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Of the four key players involved with bringing the modern polygraph to market, William Marston was the biggest influence on the space.
Marston’s work served as the foundation of John A. Larson’s studies into the subject and the release of his first polygraph device used in law enforcement organizations in the US. This post looks at the life of William Marston, his work, and his influence on polygraph science and psychology in the early 1900s.
Who Was William Moulton Marston?
Born on May 9, 1893, in the Cliftondale section of Saugus, Massachusetts, William Moulton Marston was the son of Frederick William and Annie Dalton Marston. While he’s one of the most legendary names in polygraph science, he’s better known by his pen name, Charles Moulton, and his creation of the iconic “Wonder Woman” franchise under DC comics.
William Marston was a trained psychologist responsible for introducing the first American lie detector prototype used by law enforcement in criminal investigations. His work with systolic blood pressure and its influence on deception detection progressed the field more than anyone before him, forming the foundation of John A. Larson’s work.
Marston was notorious for living a polyamorous lifestyle at a time when this sort of behavior was considered taboo in America. His wife, Elizabeth Holloway, was instrumental in inventing the blood pressure polygraph, helping him realize his ideas.
Marston also had a successful stint as a self-help author, and his work creating Wonder Woman still influences modern culture today. According to sources, his wife and their life partner, Olive Byrne, were huge inspirations in his development of the Wonder Woman character. In 2006, Marston was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame.
The Early Life and Career of William Marston
Marston received his formal education at Harvard University. He graduated “Phi Beta Kappa” in 1915, receiving a BA in 1915, an LLB in 1918, and his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1921. While a student, Marston involved himself in creative writing, selling his first theatrical script, “The Thief,” to Alice Guy-Blaché, who produced and directed the film in 1913.
After graduating from Harvard, Marston took up a teaching role at the American University in Washington, DC, before moving to Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Obsessed by his love for movies and entertainment, he moved to California in 1929, spending a year as the Director of Public Services while teaching at the University of Southern California.
Marston fathered four children, two with Elizabeth Holloway Marston, his wife, and another two with his life partner, Olive Byrne. Elizabeth gave birth to a son and a daughter, and Olive Byrne gave birth to two sons. While raising the children, Elizabeth supported the family financially, and Olive Byrne stayed at home with their kids.
William Marston and His Quest for the Truth
The connection between Marston and his quest for truth made him make two huge contributions to society. The first was his invention of the systolic blood pressure polygraph device, and the second was Wonder Woman.
Diana Prince, the eponymous name of the Wonder Woman character, uses the “Lasso of Truth” to fight her battles in Marston’s comic books. According to Marston’s legend, the Greek god Hephaestus forged the lasso, and wrapping it around someone compels them to tell the truth.
While the Lasso of Truth is clearly something of science fiction, it gets its cue from Marston’s work on his first iteration of the modern polygraph device. The systolic blood pressure test became a precursor to the modern-day polygraph, and it’s interesting to see Marston display his interest in the truth in science and fantasy.
William Marston and the First Lie Detector Device
Marston came up with the idea for his lie detector while studying at Harvard in 1915. As a dual graduate student of psychology and law student, Marston had several interests leading him to a quest for the truth.
The story of how he visualized the idea for his lie detector comes from his life experience more than his studies. One day, his wife, Elizabeth, remarked to him that she spiked her blood pressure whenever she got excited or mad.
This offhand remark made Marston think about the correlation between lying and blood pressure. As a result, he started his research into the correlation between lying and its effects on blood pressure. Marston became obsessed with determining if he could uncover deceptive behavior by analyzing the changes in a person’s blood pressure.
His research and experiments into the physiological and psychological effects of lying led to the invention of the “systolic blood pressure test,” earning him the moniker of “The Father of the Lie Detector.”
The lie detector takes the appearance of a simple device, and the theory behind its operation is also basic. The systolic blood pressure test operates on a simple but effective line of questioning, detecting the examinee’s baseline blood pressure.
Examples of these simple questions might include asking the examinee if their name is John, if they were born in California in 1902, and if their mother’s maiden name is Doe.
Once the examinee affirms these questions, the test moves on to ask them a question relating to the case for which they are under investigation, such as “did you murder the gardener?” Marston would use his device to monitor the changes in the subject’s blood pressure between the control questions and the inquiry into their charges.
The device was remarkably accurate at detecting the examinee’s changes in blood pressure under questioning. It was so successful that it began use in law enforcement cases, providing evidence for charging the accused with their alleged crime.
However, his device came into question in 1919. After the United States entered the First World War, Marston felt his device could assist the US Department of Science and Research with detecting espionage.
John F. Shepard chaired the review subcommittee formed to evaluate Marston’s proposal for using his device in deception detection and its accuracy. Marston claimed his lie detector device provided “remarkable results” in “thirty deception exams under ironclad circumstances.
However, Shepard wasn’t convinced of Marston’s tests. Shepard wrote the following in his report on the matter.
“The same results would be caused by so many different circumstances, anything demanding equal activity (emotional or intellectual), that it would be practically impossible to divide any individual case.”
However, despite the subcommittee disapproving of Marston’s request, there is some evidence that his device was used during WWI. A report from the National Academies Press shows John E. Hoover inquired into the accuracy and efficacy of lie detector tests.
The same report states Marston claimed he administered systolic blood pressure tests on individuals accused of spying on the United States.
Marston experienced the further rejection of his device in 1923. This year, he attempted to have resulted from his lie detector device admitted as evidence in a court of law. Despite its rejection, Marston saw a possible future for his device in law enforcement applications and the private sector.
Regarding the private sector applications of his lie detector, Marston believed it could be useful in looking into spousal infidelity and psychotherapy. His statements contended the device could disclose the subconscious secrets of which test subjects were unaware.
Marston continued testing his device in the public sector, seeing success with its application. The most famous case is its use in using it on two people engaged to others but revealed to be in love with each other. As a result, they adjusted their lives and married each other.
William Marston – Providing Inspiration for John Larson
William Marston’s work on how deception affects systolic blood pressure formed the foundations for John A. Larson’s research and prototyping of his lie detector device in the early 1920s. Larson re-engineered Marston’s ideas, creating a device nicknamed the “Sphyggy” by the media.
Larson incorporated Marston’s work on systolic blood pressure monitoring with pulse and respiration rates in his device. The results were groundbreaking at the time. Larson found Marston’s work through his studies at UCLA, putting his prototype into action at the Berkeley Police department.
Without William Marston, Larson would not have discovered the framework he needed for his device, and the progression of polygraph technology would never have reached Leonard Keeler. Keeler is the inventor of the modern polygraph, incorporating the monitoring of skin electrical activity into his device to further bolster Larsons’ design.
However, Marston was the first American to bring blood pressure monitoring into the realm of deception detection, making his work the basis of everything to come.
Charles Moulton and “The Lasso of Truth”
William Marston seemed to give up on his passion for turning his blood pressure monitoring device into the industry benchmark for deception detection in the public and private sectors. In his thirties, Marston took his work into advertising, becoming a household name thanks to his appearance in adverts.
In 1938, Marston appeared in advertisements by Gillette. In the ad, he used his lie detector device to prove that Gillette’s razor blades are better than its competitors. He also received frequent guest appearances in Family Circle Magazine interviews hosted by “Olive Richard,” his life partner, who was actually Olive Byrne. In one well-known article, “Don’t Laugh at the Comics,” published in 1940, Marston stated he believed comics had educational value. Industry publisher Max Gaines read the article, hiring Marston as a consultant for “All-American Publications,” which would later merge with another publishing company to form the no legendary DC Comics.
A year after starting his position, Marston created his comic book, “Wonder Woman.” WW made a guest appearance in All-Star Comics #8 in 1941, with Marston publishing his work under the pseudonym “Charles Moulton.”
Wonder Woman was Marston’s ideal of a strong, beautiful woman. He gave her a special prop, the “Lasso of Truth,” Marston’s take on a fantasy lie detector device. Anyone caught in its grip would have to divulge the truth.
Wonder Woman was a smash hit with comic fans, and Marston received a publishing deal, starting a solo comic venture for her character. Marston structured Wonder Woman’s adventures based on his study of submission and dominance in psychology. WW and the characters in the book were frequently constantly imprisoned, handcuffed, and chained.
The stories in WW comics were consistent with Marston’s ideals that everyone must submit to the truth in order to find their freedom. Therefore, the “Lasso of Truth” was an instrument of liberation and domination.
During his time as a consultant and comic writer, Marston lived a polyamorous lifestyle with his wife, Elizabeth, and Olive Byrne, the woman who interviewed him for his many pieces in Family Circle Magazine.
Marston’s son, Pete, claims it was his wife, Elizabeth, who suggested the Wonder Woman character to William after he told her his dream about writing a comic. Elizabeth was a well-educated, strong lady with degrees in law and psychology. She worked while Olive stayed home and looked after the kids.
However, Marston attributes the aspects of Wonder Woman to Olive in a 1942 Family Circle interview. He called Olive his “Wonder Woman,” stating that the bracelets she wore inspired Wonder Woman’s cuffs.
William Moulton Marston – The Death of the Father of the Lie Detector
William Moulton Marston developed cancer in his forties and died in Rye on May 2, 1947. It was just seven days before his 54th birthday when he succumbed to the disease and passed. Olive and Elizabeth continued to live together after Williams’s death, with Olive passing in 1990, aged 86, and Elizabeth in 1993, aged 100.
Wonder Woman has been published continuously since its creation, making it one of the top-3 most successful comics from the DC franchise achieving this status. Marston’s life features in a 2017 biographical drama, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” portraying his life, works, and the creation of the Wonder Woman character. Welsh Actor, Luke Evans, plays Marston in the film.