The duplicating polygraph is a mechanical device used for reproducing images and handwriting. The device was most popular in the early 19th century, particularly in the hands of various American statesman. The mechanical logics for the device were based on the pantograph, a 17th century tool created for drafting and image reproduction.
The duplicating polygraph is not to be confused with the contemporary electric polygraph, or "lie detector".
"Frame" and "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 emerging anxiety regarding the ephemerality of print, as well an increasing socio-political 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 duplication.
Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century inventors employed two methods for overcoming the singularity of handwriting:
1. transferring ink to another sheet of paper or tissue via applied pressure, as seen with James Watts' copying press patented in 1780
2. constructing a device to copy movement of the hand by using the hand itself as a motor, as seen with the pantograph and the polygraph
The copying press was wildly popular in the late 18th and 19th century, and was used by figures such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. The difficulty of the copying press, however, was that the inks used could only be transferred to tissues; it could not produce instantly duplicated letters, only referents of the original letter. The handwriting could be duplicated, but not the letter itself.
The pantograph offered a means to reproduce the act and moment of inscription itself. The first known accounted pantograph was published by Christoph Scheiner in 1631. Composed of four light, sturdy rods jointed to form a parallelogram, the pantograph
with the pantograph, the moment of composition and the moment of reproduction are temporally condensed into the singular act of handwriting.
As an anonymous article published in Philadelphia's Salem Gazette in 1803 describes, Hawkins' polygraph "multiplies copies of writing, or rather makes originals.” (thought this quote might fit here...)
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 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)
Advertisement and Reception in America
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 from the Early Republic, 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 hands of good men
As he readied his first polygraphs for sale in America, Peale was anxious about the masses potentially getting a hold of his meticulously constructed machines. “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). While a major selling point of the polygraph was that it saved labor, its manufacture was relatively labor-intensive. As Peale outlines in his first advertisement, published in Poulson's American Daily Advertiser in 1803:
"Every invention that saves labour and time merits attention and approbation of the inhabitants of America [...] My desire to promote the manufactory of an invention which promises to become to generally useful, prompts me to superintend a work of machinery to perform several similar movements, which I know must be executed with great accuracy, otherwise the best of intentions might be destroyed or lost to the public, wherefore I have spared neither labour or expense to simplify the machinery."
Peale employed two cabinet makers to build the machines, and, while the well-built, carefully tested polygraph was easy to use, because of its meticulous technology, it was not so simple to fix. Heavily invested in their performance, Peale was often on call to fix and improve the machines. The reputation of a burgeoning technology was at stake, and, akin to the signature or the spoken guarantee, Peale's ready handy-work attached a certain moral code to commerce: "I most certainly prefer their falling into the hands of good men as I wish to work only for such". It is no surprise, therefore, that Peale "signed" all of his advertisements by printing his name in italicized capital letters. It is also telling that signature machines - which conserve both labor and authenticity - are the primary remediation of the polygraph (Bedini 199).
In addition to values accorded to labor and authenticity, price also shaped the polygraph market. Polygraphs were a 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 preserving rather than to disseminating information. 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., Latrobe reported, close to forty were sold by his personal recommendation.
As the revenue necessary to support the production of polygraphs failed to materialize, Peale endeavored to extend his business based on the model of handwritten correspondence to a more public market through print ads and demonstrations - 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 need to "look at" the polygraph - to see it in person - highlights the difficulty of generating public appeal. Newspapers were an easy public forum, but, at this time, had no images. In print, the "ingenious contrivance" was textually flattened beside ads for salt, the Albion Benevolent Society, a runaway slave named Jim, and patent antiseptic (American Citizen, July 14, 1804).
Actions and words
The polygraph is a machine that shows you how it works. As any anonymous article published in several newspapers in 1803 describes, the polygraph “is so simple in the construction of its machinery that the movement is perfectly easy; not liable to get out of order; and the knowledge of using it obtained in one minute.” Though it has many parts and, as the back and forth between Peale and Jefferson suggests, could be endlessly tinkered with, the polygraph’s general mechanism is relatively obvious and simple to operate. Sitting down to write, the two pens, aligned side by side, are the immediate focus: grip one and begin to write, and the other moves right beside one’s original inscription. The device that joins the two pens moves visibly behind the guillotine, connected with the action of writing. Unlike print duplication, the hand plugs directly into and participates as a part of the copying machine. In Techniques of the Observer, Crary observes that “[b]eginning in the nineteenth century, the relation between eye and optical apparatus becomes one of metonymy: both were now operating on the same plane of operation” (Crary 129). As a mechanical extension of handwriting (occupying the interval between the copying press and the typewriter), the polygraph engendered a similarly metonymic relationship between the hand, the inscription, and the copy.
Demonstration was thus an ideal way to introduce the polygraph. The machines were permanently on view at Peale’s museum in Philadelphia, and he periodically distributed handbills to the public to come and have a look. Vice President Aaron Burr visited the museum in January of 1804 and purchased a polygraph on the spot (Bedini 59). To prospective buyers further a field, Peale sent copies of letters, noting that they had been written with the polygraph. (59) These letters were the “hello world” communiqués of handwritten duplications.
In July 1804, Peale traveled to New York City to demonstrate at the Tontine Coffee House for two weeks. He was sure to place announcements in several New York papers, that, as David Henkin writes in his book City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York, “functioned as sites of public opinion and critical discussion of public affairs” at the turn of the nineteenth century. These papers “evoked broad networks of international shipping and commerce and reproduced a mode of discourse associated with the salon,” and the Tontine was “the symbolic center of this world” (Henkin 123). Thus the public space in which Peale chose to demonstrate the polygraph was more accurately a public sphere (123): an imagined community that corresponded to a certain vision of the polygraph’s market.
The polygraph caught the attention of Tontine regulars, who, in the spirit of public debate, by turns marveled at the machine and contested that they had seen the same model in France - most likely referring to Brunel's earlier make (Bedini 85-86). When the crowd became too loud, Peale expressed himself by scribbling away with the polygraph. “I very frequently wrote answers to what they were saying—that had to bad effect I could rub those kind of grumbling geniuses pretty hardly without seeming to pay attention to what was said, and all the by standers were continually reading what I wrote” (Peale’s diary). In performing the functionality of the medium, Peale answered the skeptical crowd.
Peale sold one polygraph during his demo stint at the Tontine, to the diplomat John Armstrong (Bedini 86). This sale, along with continued support from the recently re-elected Jefferson, encouraged Peale to target polygraphs to government offices. Peale traveled to Washington in December of 1804, and demonstrated the machine to members of Congress. While the statesmen admired the contrivance, Peale sold no polygraphs during his two-week stay (Bedini 101).
Interestingly, Peale’s final announcement for his demonstration at the Tontine on July 14th was printed next to death notice for Alexander Hamilton on the front pages of the New-York Gazette and the Republican Watch-Tower. Hamilton had been shot two days prior, in a dual with Aaron Burr - the former vice president who bought a polygraph in early 1804. Later that year, Burr campaigned for governor of New York. During Burr’s unsuccessful run, Hamilton – a political rival – published several derogatory articles. After similarly belittling remarks made at a dinner party and Hamilton’s failure to account for them, Burr challenged Hamilton to the duel. [CITE]
Several days after Hamilton’s death, the controversy between Burr and Hamilton was submitted to the public sphere: the Republican Watch-Tower printed the correspondence between Burr and Hamilton leading up to the duel, with commentary by their lawyers.
“TO THE AMERICAN PUBLIC The authenticity of the documents and the accuracy of the information which we have at last obtained, are beyond any question; and must put an end to all mistake or misrepresentation…The following is the correspondence that passed between General Hamilton and Colonel Burr, together with the conduct, motives and views of General Hamilton, written in his own hand.”
The Watch-Tower even printed Hamilton’s will: “In testimony whereof, I have hereto subscribed my hand.”
This discourse of slander, misunderstanding, and authenticity are marked by the specter of “the hand”: necessarily excluded from print. While Burr used the polygraph to preserve copies of his handwritten correspondence, Hamilton published articles and sparked rumors at parties. One way of life was not long for this world.
Bedini, Silvio A. Thomas Jefferson and His Copying Machines. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984.
Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990.
Fliegelman, Jay. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.
Henkin, David M. City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Vismann, Cornelia. Files: Law and Media Technology. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.