Today when we want to make a copy of a letter or a map all we do is strike a few keys on a computer or place the document on a Xerox Copier screen and within a few seconds, we have a near perfect duplicate. A few decades ago, the process was a bit more involved and depended upon mimeograph screens or carbon paper but it still was not labor intensive. In the 18th Century, however, all this was done by hand and the need for good copies was no less. Letters send thorough the post needed to be copied for fear they might be lost, government records had to be stored and archived, military orders and maps had to be distributed to the various regiments in any theater. Governments and commerce run on paper but in the 18th Century all that paperwork was handwritten and the process could be tedious.
Hand copying maps and a very painstaking process and the getting the exact copies was never assured. Furthermore, many times you need to reduce of enlarge an image making the process even more difficult and prone to error. Before cameras and digital editing helped us share and enlarge our images, tools such as the pantograph helped people to duplicate and adjust a drawing or map, they wanted to share and document. Consisting of multiple landing points where a writing utensil could attach, a pantograph would mimic the motion created by the user, effectively duplicating shape while enlarging or reducing scale. For this reason, mechanical copying aids were a must for cartographers, surveyors, and printers. The most commonly used copying aid was the pantograph or polygraph.
The duplicating polygraph is a mechanical device used for reproducing images and handwriting. One arm of the pantograph contained a small pointer, while the other held a drawing implement, and by moving the pointer over a diagram, a copy of the diagram was drawn on another piece of paper. By changing the positions of the arms in the linkage between the pointer arm and drawing arm, the scale of the image produced can be changed. 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.
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. 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. His meticulous attention to record keeping has been accredited by some 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. Jefferson also had less personal reasons to maintain records of his correspondence. Involved with the creation of the United States during its early, formative period, records were also a means to establish a heritage for a nation with an emerging identity.
Jefferson first encountered the polygraph through 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. 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.