The Polygraph: The Proto-Photocopy Machine Machine Invented in 1803 That Changed Thomas Jefferson’s Life

Today we asso­ciate the word poly­graph main­ly with the devices we call “lie detec­tors.” The unhid­den Greek terms from which it orig­i­nates sim­ply mean “mul­ti­ple writ­ing,” which seems apt enough in light of all those movie inter­ro­ga­tion scenes with their jud­der­ing par­al­lel nee­dles. But the first “poly­graph machine” mer­it­ing the name long pre­dates such cin­e­mat­ic clichés, and indeed cin­e­ma itself. Patent­ed in 1803 by an Eng­lish­man named John Isaac Hawkins, it con­sist­ed essen­tial­ly of twin pens, mount­ed side-by-side and con­nect­ed by means of levers and springs so as always to move in uni­son. The result, in the­o­ry, was that it would make an iden­ti­cal copy of a let­ter even as the writer wrote it.

“The poly­graph was push­ing tech­nol­o­gy to the absolute lim­it,” but for years “it was near­ly impos­si­ble to make it work cor­rect­ly.” So says Charles Mor­rill, a guide at Thomas Jef­fer­son­’s estate Mon­ti­cel­lo, in the video above.

Despite the pro­longed tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, the third pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca fell in love with the poly­graph, “a device to dupli­cate let­ters, just the thing if you’re car­ry­ing on mul­ti­ple con­ver­sa­tions with dif­fer­ent peo­ple all over the world. You want to keep a copy of the let­ter to catch your­self up, to see what you had writ­ten to cause a response” — and, of spe­cial con­cern to a nation­al politi­cian, to check on the exact degree to which the press was mis­quot­ing you.

Image by the Smith­son­ian, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Jef­fer­son wrote near­ly 20,000 let­ters, one of them a com­plaint to John Adams about suf­fer­ing “under the per­se­cu­tion of Let­ters,” a con­di­tion ensur­ing that “from sun-rise to one or two o’clock, I am drudg­ing at the writ­ing table.” That the poly­graph reduced this drudgery some­what made it, in Jef­fer­son­’s words, “the finest inven­tion of the present age.” Like tech­no­log­i­cal ear­ly adopters today, Jef­fer­son acquired each new mod­el as it came out, the device hav­ing been con­tin­u­al­ly retooled by Amer­i­can rights-hold­er Charles Will­son Peale. By 1809 Peale had improved the poly­graph to the point that Jef­fer­son could write that it “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.” Imag­ine how he would’ve felt had Mon­ti­cel­lo been wired for e‑mail.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er Thomas Jefferson’s Cut-and-Paste Ver­sion of the Bible, and Read the Curi­ous Edi­tion Online

Thomas Jefferson’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grand­son Pos­es for a Pres­i­den­tial Por­trait

Thomas Jefferson’s Hand­writ­ten Vanil­la Ice Cream Recipe

Dis­cov­er Friedrich Nietzsche’s Curi­ous Type­writer, the “Malling-Hansen Writ­ing Ball” (Cir­ca 1881)

The First Music Stream­ing Ser­vice Was Invent­ed in 1881: Dis­cov­er the Théâtro­phone

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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