Duplicating Polygraph

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Polygraph party, happening right here.

“Origins” of the polygraph

The polygraph emerged in the late 18th century as merely one of a score of instruments designed and patented for the mechanical reproduction of handwriting. It burgeoned from a newly emerging concern regarding the ephemerality of print, as well as the desire to compile information for the benefit of posterity. Unlike the typewriter, which rose to prominence because of the need for quickly reproducible business correspondence, the polygraph was part of an effort to preserve information via copy, rather than disseminate information via duplicate.

The most common techniques for approaching the problem of handwriting's singularity was to devise mechanisms that would: 1. copy over ink (the copying press, James Watt) 2. copy movement of the hand by using the hand itself as a motor (pantograph, polygraph)

origins in creating perspective drawings. James watt produced many (33-34)

1775 Charles Willson Peale devises a “painter's quadrant"

Peale, Hopkinson and Dearborn are all preoccupied with making machines based on the pantograph (35). All these tools were for making perspective drawings, miniatures, and landscapes. First recorded use of pantographic mechanism in the service of writing is Sir William Petty's 1648 (patent date) device that had two pens, but wasn't practicle. Cotteneuve produced a similar device in 1763 and presented it at the royal academy of sciences, and called it a “polygraphe” or “copiste habile” (38). cumbersome, never commercially produced.

Marc Isambard Brunel was an architect and civil engineer from France who escaped to the US then settled in England. He was first granted an American patent in 1799 for a “machine for writing with two pens” (it was produced by a dressing-case maker). Three months laters, Brunel patented it in England, where it enjoyed some popularity. This apparatus was imported in 1801 and advertised by Pierre Martin Stollenwek and Nephew (interesting that Bedini doesn't refer to this as a "polygraph") pgs 38

CHECK Patent

CHECK the Mercantile Advertiser, May 11, 1801 (New York)

4 years later, Brunel is challenged by a similar inventions by Philly inventor John Isaac Hawkins. Hawkins machine was in principle similar to Brunel's machine. Hawkins collaborated with Charles Willson Peale, Philly inventor and artist. Hawkins worked with a cabinetmaker (42) to produce a polygraph, which Peale was psyched about. Peale offered to prepare a preliminary patent application. At first uncertain about the originality of the invention, they finally determined that Hawkins invention differed significantly from Brunel's. (I feel like a Gitelman quote is appropriate somewhere here)

Peale wrote to James Madison, sec. Of state, and requested the patent. It was granted May 17, 1803 for the “Improvement in the pentagraph and parallel ruler”. Patent office burned in 1836. British patent offered Sept 24, 1803.

CHECK british patent (pg 47)

CHECK The Repertory of Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture (1804)

Peale wrote to Jefferson and talked some smack on Brunel's machine. Hawkins made arrangements to move to england and passed the American patent rights to Peale. Agreed to pay a royalty of 10% to Hawkins for each polygraph sold. Upon getting to England, Hawkins made contact with Peale's 2 sons, Rubens and Rembrandt.

Sold his first polygraph to Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Sept. 1803. Finished his first 10 Onct 3, 1803. Advertised in Poulson's American Daily Advertiser. 2 pen = $50 = 953.29 today. 3 pen= $60 = 1143.95 today.

Note story about first 3 produced during a dry spell, causing the wood the swell.

The need to make the writing surface perfectly level instigated the production of another mechanism, the spirit level (55).

Thomas Jefferson and the Polygraph

On five months full tryal of the Polygraph with two pens, I can now conscientiously declare it a most precious invention. Its superiority over the copying press is so decided that I have entirely laid that aside; I only regret that it had not been invented 30 years sooner, as it would have enabled me to preserve copies of my letters during the war, which to me would have been a consoling possession.

- Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Charles Willson Peale, August 19, 1804. Later republished as an endorsement in an advertisement for the Polygraph in Poulson’s Daily American Advertiser on December 6, 1804.

Thomas Jefferson is perhaps the polygraph’s most famed user and his advice to Charles Willson Peale, the developer of the device in the United States, had a direct impact on the refinement and advancement of the polygraph. This section will elaborate why Jefferson found the polygraph so appealing in his work, the implications of duplication for the maintenance of a government record, and his correspondence with Peale regarding improvements to the contraption.

Writing letters was an intense preoccupation for Jefferson, an activity that took up half his day and culminated into the production of close to 20,000 letters. 1 He kept the duplicates of these letters, produced by the polygraph, in filing presses, which were organized alphabetically and chronologically in his personal archive in Monticello.2 His devote attention to record keeping has been accredited to two experiences in which all of his books and papers were lost. The first was an incident on February 1, 1770, where his family home in Shadwell was burnt to the ground with all of possessions. The second, in 1780, when Benedict Arnold’s raid on Richmond destroyed much of Virginia’s records, which included Jefferson’s personal and public papers. (Bedini, 1) On a larger note, Jefferson was involved in creating a new nation, one that would require a record as a reference in the establishment of its own heritage. Jefferson, who studied history throughout his lifetime, was no doubt aware of the need to build this record during this early, formative period of the United States. (Bedini, 3) Jay Fliegelman, in his book Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance, argues that the importance of persuasive rhetoric in the United States was especially key in this period, where the orator was to convince the listener not only through coherence but through the usage of expressive emotion. Fliegelman sees this as the origin of a distinct form of selfhood, where all expression is a form of self-expression, and takes Jefferson as a primary figure within this rhetorical shift. (Fliegelman, 2) One could extrapolate from this argument, and posit that perhaps Jefferson was also interested in giving an expressive voice to the new republic through the formation of a record. Cornelia Vismann in Files: Law and Media Technology would not doubt concur: in her discussion of the modernization of Prussia in the early 1800s, she argues that, “By anticipating how it will be viewed by future history, the state becomes a subject of history. Archiving its files amounts to the administration of an estate on a state level…Administrative acts reveal themselves to be historical anticipations.” (Vismann, 120) Similarly, the United States was developing its identity in Jefferson’s time with an attention towards future historical importance, thus the formation of an archive was closely aligned with the United States as a “subject of history” in Vismann’s terms. The production of documentation and correspondence increased as part of this project, necessitating copy devices. Under these circumstances, the polygraph was an indeed a practical device, and Jefferson recommended it heartily to many of his colleagues and to governmental representatives from other nations. In the year 1804, chief clerk of the Department of State Jacob Wagner and professional surveyor Isaac Briggs purchased polygraphs on the recommendation of Jefferson (Bedini, 87), and Jefferson gave the polygraph as a gift to the Tunisian ambassador Siddi Suliman Mella Menni (Bedini, 134) as well as Commodore Edward Preble of Sicily (Bedini, 117).

Jefferson first encountered the polygraph through his friend, engineer and architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Latrobe demonstrated the device to him in 1804 and Jefferson asked to borrow it. Latrobe then ordered one for Jefferson, and Peale decided to present the polygraph as a gift to the president. Peale was to continue to develop customized polygraphs after this initial gift, according to Jefferson’s requests, recommendations and feedback. Jefferson took on an almost informal advisory role in the development of the device, addressing some of the design flaws of the original. Jefferson’s first observation was that the wooden writing surface would become warped over time, and suggested an alternate placement of the wood akin to that of parquet floors (which he had recently installed in his house) that would prevent movement of the wood slab. (Bedini, 71) Peale considered his idea, until he realized that the warping of the wood was the result of inaccurately drilled holes, which he remedied by improving the drills. In April, May and August of 1804, Peale was to produce three additional customized polygraphs for the president, according to his specifications. The first, a portable version, had a removable cover, instead of folding up into the appliance, and ink holders at each end, to provide for more ink, both Jefferson’s ideas. (Bedini, 73) The second was a stationary model, which doubled as a writing desk. Jefferson suggested an extra screw be added to the copying pen, so that it could be adjusted. Peale also added new alterations on his own, providing a lighter pen bar as well as a stay for the pen bar, which was a new modification recently introduced by Hawkins. (Bedini, 77) The third version was to be a replica of the second, intended for use in Monticello. Jefferson also requested that the inkholders be moved higher and placed in a tray, and the desk portion was to be shallower in this third model. (Bedini, 80) Both the portable and stationary models were elaborated through an ongoing discussion about the instrument between Peale and Jefferson. Jefferson, in later correspondence with Peale, was also responsible for introducing new inkpots, which were more convenient in shape and size. (Bedini, 81) Jefferson also complained about the fragility of the pens, an observation that lead Peale to modify their design, making them wider above the point and increasing their concavity to hold more ink. (Bedini, 83)

Despite the enthusiasm of Jefferson and Latrobe, and Peale’s citation of their praises in a host of printed advertisements from 1804 to 1806, the polygraph largely failed to capture the American imagination. While Hawkins sold all of the 150 polygraphs manufactured in England, Peale sold approximately 60 of the 80 polygraphs he produced in the U.S. (Bedini 187) In 1807, advertisements for two-pen polygraphs patented by P.A. Meiser and E. Seargeant appeared in newspapers along the Eastern seaboard. Meiser and Seargeant also advertised "A Polygraphic Book Machine," or a mechanism which allows letters to be copied into a book through carbon copy: the less-expensive method that would surpass the polygraph in popularity, especially when combined with the typewriter. Peale retired in 1810, and by 1809, polygraphs are mentioned in print only as items for sale at auction or in estate sales.

Looking at newspapers of the day, this section will address the problem of selling the polygraph to the American public. While the polygraph failed to become a technology of litigation, administration or mercantile operation, it spoke to fundamental issues of authenticity and authorship that, as Jonathan Crary describes, arose in the 19th Century when “new technologies and forms of exchange put in question notions of the ‘hand.’” (Crary 22)

The polygraph network

When he first began to produce and sell polygraphs in America, Peale did not want his meticulously constructed machines falling into the hands of just anyone. “Write to me whether you think anything more is necessary to be done, before we send this the Polygraph into the world amongst fools & knaves,” he asked Latrobe in 1803, “yet I most certainly prefer their falling into the hands of good men as I wish to work only for such.” (Bedini 56) Good men are the makers of archives, while knaves are indifferent to the record. Polygraphs were also considerable investment: Peale asked $50 for the two pen model, and $60 for three pens - approximately $955 and $1145 today. The machine was thus lodged in an elite network shaped by literacy and affluence, a network it reinforced by conserving rather than to disseminating information.

As the revenue necessary to support the labor-intensive production of polygraphs (Peale employed two cabinet makers in addition to himself) failed to materialize, Peale endeavored to translate his business venture structured on handwritten correspondence into publicity through print – to little avail. “I cannot make an impression on the public mind to produce a demand for Polygraphs,” Peale wrote to Hawkins in 1807, “yet those who look at them always speak with admiration of the ingenious contrivance.” (Bedini 152) The polygraph is an artisanal artifact, "an ingenious contrivance" that would not withstand the tides of industrialization and consumer capitalism. The polygraph "is used only by a few litterary [sic] men, who will take pains to save themselves troubles," Latrobe observed in a letter to Jefferson in 1817. (Bedini 173) Of the sixty polygraphs sold in the U.S., the architect reports, close to forty were sold by his personal recommendation.

Demo letters

Before placing ads in newspapers in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, Peale advertised by sending copies produced by the polygraph instead of original letters to acquaintances and prospective buyers.

The polygraph’s “hello world” moment.

Translating handwriting into print

Peale placed his first advertisement for the polygraph in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (a Philadelphia paper in which he placed most of his advertisements) on October 3, 1803.

(No images in newspapers)

Polygraph demonstrations

Polygraphs were permanently on view at Peale’s museum in Philadelphia, and he distributed handbills to the public to come and have a look. “The merit of the Machinery consists in its extreme simplicity” (Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, Feb. 26, 1807) Peale advertised in 1807. He made two trips to demonstrate the polygraph: he traveled to Washington to show the utility of the machine to senators in January 1804, and made a week-long trip to New York that summer.

During the demonstrations, Peale attempted his earlier technique of showing and selling by writing.

Peale published a notice that he would be demonstrating the polygraph at the Tontine Coffeehouse in New York for one week in July 1804. On July 14, his advertisement appeared next to the death notice of Alexander Hamilton on the front pages of the New-York Gazette and the Republican Watch-Tower.

Advertising in Britain and France



Bedini, Silvio A. Thomas Jefferson and His Copying Machines Charlottesville : University Press of Virginia, 1984

Fliegelman, Jay Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993

Vismann, Cornelia Files: Law and Media Technology, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008