When Thomas Jefferson wanted to preserve his papers, he couldn't wait for Xerox. So he found a way to make copies on his own
It was reported that Thomas Jefferson was devastated in 1770 when his family home, Shadwell, was destroyed by fire while he was away practicing law. The flames consumed his papers, his books, and his other personal possessions. Ten years later disaster struck again. Then governor of Virginia, he lost his state papers when the British raided Richmond, the state's capital.
The prolific Jefferson was noted for both the quantity and the quality of his writing. He would carefully record in a pocket notebook the minutiae of his day -- how long a ferry took to cross a river, for example. And, of course, he penned the Declaration of Independence. Always concerned with preserving his papers -- as well as those of the public record -- for posterity, he would spend hours copying by hand his correspondence for his files.
What Jefferson needed was a piece of equipment found in just about every modern-day office: a copying machine. And by the end of the 1780s, he had one. So did several of his contemporaries, including Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.
It was Franklin who in 1780 brought the first copying machine to the attention of his colleagues. The versatile inventor had been toying with his own version of the thing when he learned, while in Paris serving as American minister to France, of one built by James Watt, inventor of the steam engine.
"But as I love to encourage Ingenuity," he wrote to James Woodmason, who sold the presses for James Watt and Co., "you may put me down as a subscriber and send me three of the machines, which are for some Friends." Woodmason wrote back, saying in effect, "Sorry, but I need the cash up front." Franklin reluctantly anted up, though he tartly replied that he did not approve of extending credit (in Franklin's day, credit meant money to allow a seller to produce goods) to a company, "for I think Credit is upon the whole of more Mischief than Benefit to Mankind."
In 1775 Watt was in Birmingham, England, building his steam engines. Overwhelmed by the task of handwriting copies of his voluminous business correspondence for his records, he turned his inventor's prowess toward devising a copying machine. What he came up with consisted of a slow-drying ink made of gum arabic -- a sticky, water-soluble gum from the acacia tree -- and dampened tissue paper. He used the ink to create the original and then pressed the original and the tissue paper together. Some of the ink from the original would transfer to the tissue, which served as the copy. It was important that the tissue be thin enough to be read through yet strong enough not to tear. The process could be repeated as long as the ink from the original document had not dried, a period of about 24 hours.
Watt later refined the process by devising two presses that more easily applied the pressure necessary to transfer the ink: a roller press made of lignum vitae (a hardwood from America) and a screw-down press. By 1794 Watt -- as well as several competitors -- had even built a portable copying machine about the size of a large briefcase.
Franklin sent Jefferson one of Watt's original machines in 1780. Jefferson was so taken with the device that in 1786, while visiting friends in England, he actually designed his own portable version. Using spring-mounted brass rollers, which adjusted to the combined thickness of the tissue and the document being copied, he downsized Watt's invention so that it would fit comfortably on the traveling laptop desk he had designed for himself in 1776. Later, in Paris, he found a superior grade of paper to replace the flimsy tissue.
Jefferson used his copying press for close to 20 years. Then, in the early 1800s, he switched to a polygraph, a contraption developed by John Isaac Hawkins, an English-born inventor living in Philadelphia. The polygraph comprised as many as five pens, which were linked together by horizontal and vertical rulers, forming a series of parallelograms, and a sheet of paper held taut within a frame for each pen. Every hand movement of a pen -- up, down, left, right -- was mimicked by the other pens, so as many as four copies of the original could be produced simultaneously. Hawkins didn't know it, but the device was an expansion of the pantograph, invented in 1631 by Christoph Scheiner, a German Jesuit astronomer and educator. Scheiner had joined light, rigid rods together and attached two pencils to produce one original and one copy.
Today copying machines in the United States pump out well over 7 trillion copies each year; seventeen vendors sell the machines, including Canon, Ricoh, and of course the biggest copy-daddy of them all, Xerox. All told, in the United States alone, it's an $18.5 billion industry. Jefferson, no doubt, would be pleased.* * *
Freelance writer Mark Wheeler (email@example.com) lives in Canoga Park, Calif. He specializes in stories about science and technology.