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
Bedini, Silvio A. Thomas Jefferson and His Copying Machines. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984. Provides an excellent account of the development of the polygraph and Jefferson's championing of it.
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.