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Polygraph No. 57. Courtesy of the University of Virginia.Artist/Maker: John Isaac Hawkins (1772-1855); Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827)

Created: 1806

Origin/Purchase: Philadelphia

Materials: mahogany, brass, green baize

Dimensions: 25.4 × 61.3 × 43.2 (10 × 24 1/8 × 17 in.)

Location: Cabinet

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to Thomas Jefferson Randolph; by gift to the University of Virginia; by loan to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation since 1949

Accession Number: 1949-10

Historical Notes: Marked "Hawkins & Peale's Patent Polygraph No. 57," this machine was used by Jefferson from 1806 until his death. Jefferson first acquired the letter-copying device he called "the finest invention of the present age" in March of 1804.1 Invented and named by Englishman John Isaac Hawkins, the polygraph used the principles of the pantograph, a draftsman's tool for reducing and enlarging drawings.2 The writer's hand moves one pen whose action is duplicated by the second one, producing a copy strikingly like the original.

Before he returned to England in 1803, Hawkins assigned his American patent rights to Charles Willson Peale, who developed and marketed the invention.3 Jefferson was one of his most eager clients, purchasing one for the President's House and one for Monticello. He soon exchanged these machines for new ones, as Peale continued to perfect the design — often according to Jefferson's suggestions. By 1809 Jefferson wrote 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."4

A second Jefferson polygraph, made in England for Hawkins, survives at the American Philosophical Society. It was given by Jefferson's grandson-in-law and last secretary, Nicholas P. Trist.

- Text from Stein, Worlds, 368

Further Sources

  • 1. Jefferson to James Bowdoin, July 10, 1806, in L&B, 11:118. Polygraph copy available online from the Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 2. Confusion often arises because of the use of the term "polygraph," which is now used for a lie-detecting device. Both John Isaac Hawkins and Jefferson himself referred to Hawkins's copying device as a "polygraph," although it is what we would now call a "pantograph." According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the modern usage 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. The word "pantograph" was already being used as early as the seventeenth century, but it was used chiefly amongst the scientific community, referring to very specialized instruments for reducing or enlarging mathematical diagrams.
  • 3. The original American patent document (Patent #X453, granted May 17, 1803 to "John J. Hawkins" [sic]) was lost in a fire in the Patent Office in 1836 and is no longer extant.
  • 4. Jefferson to C.W. Peale, January 15, 1809, in Lillian B. Miller, ed. The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), v. 2 pt. 2, 1168-69. Polygraph copy available online from the Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.


ksmeltzer's picture
Jefferson is quoted in this article saying he could not live without the polygraph, which makes me laugh because of the very famous quote he wrote in a letter to John Adams that he couldn't live without books. So Jefferson's list of items, if he were going to be marooned on a desert isle would go something like this: air, water, shelter, books, polygraph, wine...
Kristie Smeltzer
ejones's picture
Jefferson loved his polygraph! He had several. Why? you may ask. Well he was a tweaker; he adapted objects and inventions to suit his own needs. The polygraph could be folded up, locked and taken on the road: the first laptop (with no need to reboot). If Jefferson lived today, he'd be the guy with three Blackberrys, an IPad, an IPhone and a Kindle. Between the urge to tweak and the urge to disseminate information, he would not be able to resist himself.
cwollerton's picture
I worked on this photoshoot in 1997. Laurence Bartone, a photographer who was working for Apple at the time, was very interested in making a QuickTime movie of this object. As he and I were discussing why we couldn't operate such a delicate and priceless objects, a member of our curatorial staff walked into the room and said, "Oh I move the pens all the time . . . I have to dust it, you know." So, after getting permission from Susan Stein, our head Curator, we arranged for another curator to move the pens 15 times (3 times down across 5 times each) while Laurence took a photo at each location. It was so cool to see how responsive and light the pantograph system is. And I'll never forget the pained look on the curator's face as he bent over the device and moved the pens ever so gently with white-gloved hands.
agray's picture
Without this machine our jobs at the Jefferson Papers would end a lot sooner...
Andrea Gray


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