Ken Alder

Ken Alder

Fellow: Awarded 2008
Field of Study: History of Science and Technology

Competition: US & Canada

Northwestern University

Ken Alder was born under the sign of Sputnik, and has devoted his career to the study of the history of science in its social and political context. He was conceived at Bell Labs in Murray Hills, New Jersey, in the same year that the U.S. launched the nation’s first telecommunications satellite. Raised in Berkeley, California, he was part of a bussing program to achieve racial integration, an experience which served as the subject of his first novel, The White Bus (St. Martin’s Press 1987). Alder studied physics at Harvard University, where he also received a Ph.D. in the history of science in 1991.

His most recent book of history, The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession (Free Press of New York 2007), uses the history of the American polygraph to examine the relationship between science and justice in the twentieth century. It does so by following the careers and misadventures of the various creators of the lie detector:

– John Larson, who created the first working lie detector, married the first woman he interrogated on the machine, and after decades spent trying to transform the device into an instrument of psychiatric evaluation, dedicated himself to the destruction of this Frankenstein’s monster.

– August Vollmer, the chief of the Berkeley Police Department, who saw in Larson’s machine a way to substitute scientific interrogation for the brutal methods of Prohibition-era cops, and thereby a way to help disassociate the police from the corruption of municipal politics.

– Leonarde Keeler, Larson’s disciple and nemesis, who transformed the device into a machine any cop could use to intimidate subjects into confessing, married a woman whom he first met when she cheated on the machine (and who later cheated on him), and who came to personify lie detection in mid-century America.

– William Moulton Marston, creator of a preliminary technique for lie detection, who went on to pioneer the use of the machine in consumer testing for both Hollywood and Madison Avenue, and who later created the cartoon character Wonder Woman, the embodiment of all the psychological principles he had discovered through lie detection.

Mr. Alder’s previous book, The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error that Transformed the World (The Free Press of New York 2002; London: Little, Brown 2002) won the Davis Prize of the History of Science Society and the Dingle Prize of the British Society for the History of Science, both for the best book in the field of the history of science directed toward a general audience. It was also co-winner of the Kagan Prize from The Historical Society for the best book in European history published in 2002-03. The Measure of All Things has also been translated into a dozen additional languages.

Alder’s first book of history, Engineering the Revolution (Princeton UP 1997), which examined the relationship between the French Revolution, science, and military technology, won the 1998 Dexter Prize for the best book published in the field of the history of technology.

Since 1991, he has taught at Northwestern University, where he is Professor of History, Milton H. Wilson Professor in the Humanities, and director of the Science in Human Culture program. He has held research grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Bar Foundation, and the American Philosophical Society. During his Guggenheim Fellowship term, he is examining the history of the forensic sciences in France and America from the seventeenth century to the present.

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