Jefferson’s ‘Xerox’ Machines

Most of what we know about the private lives of the Founding generation of Americans comes from their correspondence. To many, letter-writing was an art that was cultivated by instruction and practice. Writing was expensive and often a drudgery. Because of the uncertainties of the mail, some letter-writers kept copies of their correspondence. For most people, that meant writing a draft letter that would be retained. High ranking military officers had aides-de-camp while a few wealthy individuals employed private secretaries who would take dictation into a letterbook, from which the author would then copy the letter—not always 100% verbatim—to be sent to the recipient. Because government officials and especially diplomats were required to make multiple copies of their correspondence, these officials were usually assigned secretaries. The tedium and expense of making copies of correspondence was eased with the invention of several kinds of copy machines.

Thomas Jefferson, by Charles Willson Peale, 1791/2.

Thomas Jefferson was a staunch advocate of copy machines. In 1783, after seeing copies of letters made by Benjamin Franklin using a press copy machine recently invented in England, Jefferson ordered such a machine for himself. By mid-May 1785, Jefferson finally received his copy machine, which he started using in early June of that year. On 1 September 1785, Jefferson wrote James Madison asking if he had such a machine, telling him that the machine cost £14 with an additional cost of £1 for a ream of special paper. “You should get one . . . I would give ten times that sum that I had had it from the date of the stamp act” in 1765. Madison responded about six months later saying that he did not own such a machine, “but must postpone that conveniency to other wants which will absorb my little resources. I am fully apprized of the value of this machine and mean to get one when I can better afford it, and may have more use for it.” Madison was sure that “it would be a very œconomical acquisition to all our public offices which are obliged to furnish copies of papers belonging to them.”

Portable press copy machine (copyright of  Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.).

While visiting John Adams in England in 1786, Jefferson saw a large copy machine and thought that the principles could be applied to a more portable model. He ordered a full-size machine for his office use in Paris, and he took down the dimensions from which a French artisan could make several portable machines. Jefferson sent one to William Carmichael, the American charge d’affairs in Spain, who would find it useful because the Spanish government moved rotationally to five different royal courts. On 30 January 1787, Jefferson wrote Madison telling him that he was sending him a portable copy machine with printed directions. He warned Madison, however, that it would take some practice to make the copies “before you succeed perfectly.” Three months later, Madison acknowledged receipt of the machine.

The copy machine operated similarly to a 20th-century mimeograph machine. The author would write a letter using special ink. While still wet, a special piece of onion-skin-like paper was placed atop the letter and both were run between two spiral tubes. With the correct pressure applied, enough ink would transfer to the “press copy” without damaging the original. Too much pressure would smudge the copy; too little would not obtain an adequate transference of ink. Because the copy would be a mirror image of the original, it would have to be read from the backside—thus the need for the transparent paper. Unfortunately, over time the ink on the copy tended to migrate often making it near illegible.

Jefferson immediately started using his press copy machine. In fact, all of his original letters sent to Maria Cosway in 1786 through 1789 have been lost. Only the press copies remain. Because Jefferson had dislocated his right wrist shortly before Maria left Paris in 1786, it is doubtful that he would have hand-copied these very personal and private letters that are so revealing of his character. (See John P. Kaminski, ed., Jefferson in Love: The Love Letters of Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway, Madison, Wis., 1999).

Replica of the Hawkins-Peale polygraph sent to Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale
Replica of the Hawkins-Peale polygraph sent to Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale.

When Jefferson was serving as U.S. President in 1804, he purchased two more sophisticated copy machines (one for the President’s house and one for Monticello) which he used for the rest of his life. Called a “polygraph,”* Jefferson wrote that “It is for copying with one pen while you write with the other & without the least additional embarrassment or exertion to the writer.” Jefferson thought it was “the finest invention of the present age, and so much superior to the [press] copying machine that the latter will never be continued a day by any one who tries the Polygraph.” Metaphorically, Jefferson described the polygraph “as a Secretary which copies for us what we write without the power of revealing it.” He found it “a most precious possession to a man in public business.”

The inventor, John Isaac Hawkins was born in England in 1772 and immigrated to America where he attended Princeton. While living near Philadelphia, he invented the polygraph in 1803, whereupon he returned to England. Charles Willson Peale, the Philadelphia painter/inventor/museum owner held the American patent rights and made and sold the machines. Jefferson and Peale corresponded frequently. When Jefferson had problems with his machine or when he came up with suggestions for minor improvements, he wrote Peale who sent replacement parts or even a new machine. By 15 January 1809 as Jefferson was soon to retire from public service, he responded to Peale’s inquiry about obtaining a new model. Such a decision would be difficult, because Jefferson wrote that “the one I am now writing with, in size, in accomodations, & in goodness, [is] every thing I could wish.” At Monticello, where repairs would be difficult, it would be important to have a reliable machine. Jefferson told Peale that “the use of the polygraph has spoiled me for the old copying press the copies of which are hardly ever legible . . . I could not, now therefore, live without the Polygraph.”

Charles Willson Peale (self-portrait).

In October 1822, Jefferson wrote Peale saying “I could never be a day without thinking of you, were it only for my daily labors at the Polygraph for which I am indebted to you. It is indeed an excellent one, and after 12 or 14 years hard service it has failed in nothing except the spiral springs of silver wire which suspend the pen-frame. These are all but disabled, and my fingers are too clumsy to venture to rectify them, were they susceptible of it. I am tempted to ask you if you have ever thought of trying a cord of elastic gum. If this would answer, its simplicity would admit any bungler to prepare & apply it.” In essence, Jefferson was inventing a rubber band.

Late in life, on 15 September 1825, Jefferson wrote Peale again saying that his polygraph had become disabled and needed repair. Jefferson dismayed:

The excellent Polygraph you furnished me with 16 or 18 years ago has continued to perform its functions well till within a 12 month past. by the mere weaning of its joints, as I suppose, it became at last so rickety that I was obliged to give it up; and believing nobody but yourself could put it to rights, I have held it up for a safe hand to whom I could trust its transportation to you.

A corner of the bedroom in the Monticello home of Thomas Jefferson, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The opportunity finally came and Jefferson boxed up the inoperable polygraph and sent it via a neighboring merchant to Peale for repair. Jefferson also told Peale that a second portable polygraph that Hawkins had sent to him was also “in a similar rickety condition,” but was located at Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s plantation retreat about eighty miles southwest of Monticello, where Jefferson had kept it. Jefferson lamented that “during the 12 months that the one now sent has been disabled, I have had double drudgery to perform in writing which has been very oppressive, and now I hope will be relieved.” He asked the merchant to immediately turn over the polygraph to Peale when he arrived in Philadelphia so that Peale might make the repairs in time for the merchant to bring it back on his return to Virginia. It was important because without his polygraph “my quantity, of writing is exactly doubled, which oppresses me much.” On 1 December 1825 Jefferson wrote Peale saying that “my Polygraph [has been returned] safe and in good condition, and when I consider how much time and labor it has saved me since . . . I look back with regret to that which I have lost by the want of it a year or two.” Jefferson’s polygraph still sits silent in his study at Monticello.

*Confusion often arises because “polygraph,” is now used to refer to a lie-detecting device. Today, we would call Hawkins’ “polygraph,” a “pantograph.” According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the modern use of the word “polygraph” (i.e., lie detector) did not come about until 1871. Before that, and even after that for some years, “polygraph” was used to refer to devices like Jefferson’s that could produce several copies of the same document at the same time.