History of Polygraph Testing

Throughout the ages societies scattered across the globe has searched for a means of determining whether a person was telling the truth or not. The earliest forms of lie detection was however more akin to torture and often times relied on divine intervention. One of the earliest known methods used for the detection of deception in the 18th century was referred to as the Ordeal of Boiling Water in which the accused was forced to put his hand into a pot of boiling water. Should he be able to avoid burning, it would be believed that he or she was telling the truth. There were other similar ordeals used as truth telling methods, mostly applied under the premise that if a person was honest, divine intervention would protect the person in question.

Early Scientific Approaches

One of the earliest scientific approaches to lie detection was developed by an Italian criminologist, Cesare Lombroso in 1895. He conducted experiments in the detection of deception by attempting to record changes in the subject’s blood pressure with a device called “Lombroso’s Glove” which was used to assist in police cases. Unfortunately, his main interest was in criminal identification through physical characteristics and he never had the time to continue with his experiments in lie detection. Later another Italian named Mosso conducted further investigations of blood-volume changes during deception tests by using a crude device known as “Mosso’s Cradle”. In 1902 an inadequate lie detector test was invented by a man named James McKenzie.

History of the polygraph

Lomboro's Glove / Volumetric Glove.

Other early scientific approaches to the detection of deception includes a 1904 device by Vittorio Benussi used to measure breathing, and an abandoned project by American William Moulton Marston which used blood pressure to examine German prisoners of war. Using a sphygmomanometer, a device physicians use to take a patient’s blood pressure, he conducted experiments by taking intermittent readings of the blood pressure during questioning. Marston’s machine indicated a strong positive correlation between systolic blood pressure and lying. Marston wrote a second paper on the concept in 1915, when finishing his undergraduate studies. Despite contributions made previously to the field, he often referred to himself as "the father of polygraph."


The Magic Donkey / Rooster

Amazing folk tales still exist today in which a magical animal was used to determine if a person was telling the truth or not. In these folk tales the owner of a residence or shaman of a tribe would be able to determine who the guilty person was among a group of people with the assistance of a magical animal. In the case of the magic donkey, the owner of an estate placed a donkey in a darkened room an called all the staff together. The owner told the staff that the donkey had special powers and would be able to tell if a person was guilty as soon as that person touched the donkey's tail. The staff were instructed to enter the room with the magic donkey one by one, to touch the tail of the donkey and to then leave the room through a door on the other side of the room. All the staff agreed and one by one they entered the room on one end, and left the room by another. Low and behold the guilty party was in fact caught with this 'magical donkey' once they reached the other side of the room . . .

A similar tale existed regarding a tribe that used a magic rooster. Again all the people of the tribe was called together and were told that a magic rooster was waiting inside a tent. The people were informed that once they touched the magic rooster it would cry out if the person was not telling the truth. One by one the people of the village entered the darkened tent where they were told to touch the magic rooster before leaving the other side. According to the folk tale the guilty persons were easily caught thank to the magic rooster once they exited the tent . . .

The reason the guilty persons were caught was because in both of these tales the magic animal was covered in either ash or coal which would stain the hands of the people as they touched the 'magic' animal. Fearing that the donkey or rooster would give them away, and standing alone in a darkened room, the guilty persons in the folk tales would avoid touching the magical animals. Once they exited the room and the tent the owner and shaman would be waiting to inspect their hands, and the guilty persons were the only ones with clean hands.


The Beginning of Modern Day Polygraph Instruments

In 1921 the Berkeley, California Police Department encouraged Dr. John A. Larson, a psychiatrist, to develop what became the forerunner of the modern-day polygraph. This original polygraph was used for many years by the Berkeley Police Department. Although it was much more accurate in its results than the previous machines and recorded several different physiological responses, it was not as advanced as the modern polygraph instrument; it measured the subjects pulse rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate and recorded the information on a rotating drum of smoke paper, making it the first instrument to create permanent recording in physiological data for the purposes of lie detection. In 1925 Leonarde Keeler refined the instrument invented by John Larson; instead of using smoke paper to record changes in the suspects’ reactions, he incorporated ink pens in order to ensure the efficiency of the machine. As Larson's protege, Keeler updated the device further by making it portable and added the galvanic skin response to it in 1939. His device was then purchased by the FBI, and served as the prototype of the modern polygraph.

The history of polygraph testing
The history of polygraph
Historical Polygraph Instrument

The First Major Case Using Polygraph Testing

The first major case dealing with the use of polygraph in criminal cases was tried in 1923. This case set a precedent in polygraph. In Frye vs. United States the court ruled that polygraph was inadmissible based on the general acceptance rule of scientific reliability. The Frye case involved a man accused of murder. Even though Frye claimed that he was innocent, a jury found him guilty. Before his trial Frye was given a polygraph. A researcher by the name of Marston gave the opinion that Frye was telling the truth. Marston used blood pressure changes as indicators for truthful or deceptive responses. After serving about three years of his prison sentence another man confessed to the murder and Frye was released.

Modern Day Polygraph

throughout the years; a man named John Reid introduced the idea of using ‘control questions’ as a means of comparison.  After many years of experimenting with ways to improve the machine, the machine was finally computerized in 1991, this allowed the machine to record the results of the test more efficiently. Currently there are multiple research studies being conducted to include additional components to the polygraph instrumentation such as plethysmographs to measure changes in blood volume and temperature gauges. Other new detection of deception technologies have recently emerged such as the birth of the Converus EyeDetect system. First conceived in 2002, it’s the first ocular-motor deception detection solution. The same scientists credited with computerizing the polygraph in 1991 developed EyeDetect. Similarly researching is being conducted on implementing fMRI scans as a means of lie detection.Modern Day Polygraph Technology

The modern day polygraph advanced through the years under harsh scrutiny, and as a result it is today one of the most refined instruments used in the detection of deception and it is still continuously being improved. Notably in the modern ear every major law enforcement agency, every state police organization, and every large and middle size city police department has a polygraph operation in the United States of America. While many small cities and rural sheriff’s offices also have examiners, others depend on state assistance. Public defenders’ offices are often staffed with examiners, as are states attorney’s offices and other agencies in the criminal justice system. In the Federal Government, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the United States Secret Service, Customs, and similar agencies regularly use the polygraph. The divisions involved in criminal investigations and intelligence of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps use the polygraph, as do the major intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency. The polygraph is not confined to the United States. It is regularly used by law enforcement agencies in Canada, Japan and Israel, and to a lesser extent by law enforcement agencies in more than twenty other nations.

In South Africa, polygraph examination has been used extensively by legal and government organizations and is regularly used to assist criminal investigations. Multiple large businesses, financial institutions, banks, pharmaceutical companies, security institutions and other public organizations utilize polygraph examinations in internal investigations, pre-employment screenings and continuous integrity assessment programs.

Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Across Africa

The main offices of the Polygraph Institute of South Africa is conveniently located in Centurion from which we provide our services throughout Gauteng: Pretoria, Midrand, Brits, Johannesburg, Randburg, Sandton, Roodepoort, Heidelberg, Krugersdorp and the entire surrounding area. We also have professional affiliates assisting us across South Africa, conveniently located in Cape Town, Durban, Bloemfontein and many other regions. Our examiners are also capable of travelling to wherever they may be needed in South Africa, and have been active in Kimberley, Polokwane, Nelspruit and many other towns and cities. Essentially, our examiners can be requested to go to any location in South Africa.

Our examiners are also active and experienced in many other African countries. With successful operations in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Kenya, Swaziland, Uganda, Ghana and more. Wherever you may need our services, we are simply a phone call or email away.

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