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A 210 year-old copy machine? Really?

I believe that when you left America the invention of the Polygraph had not yet reached Boston. it is for copying with one pen while you write with the other … I think it the finest invention of the present age … knowing that you are in the habit of writing much … I have accordingly had one made [for you] … as a Secretary which copies for us what we write without the power of revealing it, I find it a most precious possession to a man in public business.
To James Bowdoin, July 10, 1806

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Far-sighted leaders promote new inventions.
Jefferson owned a polygraph, “the finest invention of the present age,” a device for making copies of letters. (Here’s another image, which better illustrates how it  folded up for transport.) It consisted of two ink pens suspended over two sheets of paper. The pens were held together by a series of wooden arms and hinges. When one of the pens was lowered onto the paper to write, the second pen followed along and made an identical copy. There were polygraphs with three and four ink pens for making multiple copies, but they were more difficult to use.

He loved the polygraph for several reasons. He kept a copy of everything he wrote. It allowed him to make a copy without having a secretary duplicate one from his original. Thus, he could keep his correspondence private. The polygraph was portable, and he traveled regularly between Washington City and Monticello. Finally, he simply loved inventions and machines. (He tinkered with Hawkins’ design to make it work better!)

What a polygraph cost in 1806 is anyone’s guess, but for sure, it was not cheap. Jefferson loved his new device so much he had one made for Bowdoin, an American minister to Spain. One of the lesser factors in Jefferson’s ever-increasing debt was his tendency to shower gifts on his friends, whether he had the cash to pay for them or not.

While Jefferson was devoted to his polygraph, it was not a commercial success. It took too much adjustment to keep in proper working order. That was not a problem for a man who loved to tinker.

P.S. To prove his point, Jefferson added his own P.S. to this letter, telling Bowdoin he was reading the pages made from the copying pen, not from the pen he held in his hand.

“We heard nothing but praise from the audience members.”
Washington State Association of Counties
Mr. Jefferson’s remarks will elicit praise from your audience, too.
Invite him to speak. Call Patrick Lee, 573-657-2739
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3 Responses to A 210 year-old copy machine? Really?

  1. Gerald Watt says:

    How can one determine whether the inked writing in Jefferson’s hand is his holograph (the “original”) or the copy made by the mechanical hand?

    Thanks, Gerald Watt

    • Thomas Jefferson Leadership says:

      I don’t know! I’ve never had that question nor read anything about it. There may have been a way to distinguish between the two, but would that make any difference? Both the original and the copy would have identical content.

  2. Gerald Watt says:

    Identical content, yes. But one is the autograph document which to an archivist is the original.

    Today, an autopen can produce a true copy of a document, for example by President Trump, but that document lacks the personal and original touch of pen to paper. It’s an authentic copy, not a holograph, which “is completely in the hand of the author.”

    Or, in monetary terms: a Jefferson copy would hold only a fraction of the value of a Jefferson original.

    Of course, you are right. The content is the same and carries the same importance as the original.

    Thank you for taking the time to answer my question.

    Jerry Watt

    Thank you for answering my question.

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