Thursday, 15 July 2010

Thomas Jefferson: The Pen and the Polygraph

Amy McDonald is Archives Assistant in Duke University Archives and author of Devil’s Tale, the blog of the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library at Duke. The blog is a delight to read for the archives enthusiast. Amy kindly informed Palimpsest of another “writing instrument” made famous by its user, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President of the United States (1801-1809): the polygraph.

Devil’s Tale reports on the visit of Francis Calley Gray to Monticello and the welcoming dinner and tour of the library the guests enjoyed under the guidance of Jefferson. Gray concludes his narration to the visit to TJ’s library with: “Mr Jeff took us from his library into his bed chamber where on a table before the fire stood a polygraph with which he said he always wrote.” 

Jefferson writes to Volney on February, 8 1805:

Our countrymen are so much occupied in the busy scenes of life, that they have little time to write or invent. A good invention here, therefore, is such a rarity as it is lawful to offer to the acceptance of a friend. A Mr. Hawkins of Frankford, near Philadelphia, has invented a machine, which he calls a polygraph, and which carries two, three, or four pens. That of two pens, with which I am now writing, is best; and is so perfect that I have laid aside the copying-press, for a twelvemonth past, and write always with the polygraph.

And a year later to Bowdoin (10 July 1806):

I believe that when you left America, the invention of the polygraph had not yet reached Boston. It is for copying with one pen while you write with the other, and without the least additional embarrassment or exertion to the writer. 
I think it the finest invention of the present age, and so much superior to the copying machine, that the latter will never be continued a day by any one who tries the polygraph. 
Knowing that you are in the habit of writing much, I have flattered myself that I could add acceptably to your daily convenience by presenting you with one of these delightful machines. I have accordingly had one made, and to be certain of its perfection I have used it myself some weeks, and have the satisfaction to find it the best one I have ever tried; and in the course of two years' daily use of them, I have had opportunities of trying several. 
As a secretary, which copies for us what we write without the power of revealing it, I find it a most precious possession to a man in public-business.
Thomas Jefferson letter, 28 May 1818

Despite his dedication to his polygraph, Thomas Jefferson had had a pen specially made. It was (the Library of Congress website informs) a small cylindrical silver fountain pen with a gold nib with an elliptical cap that screws into the end of the cylinder and caps the ink reservoir. It was probably made by William Cowan and is engraved TJ. The pen of Thomas Jefferson is held in the Monticello Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.

See a modern production of the polygraph machine here. Quotes from Thomas Jefferson, Memoir, Correspondence and Miscellanies from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. IV, Gray & Bowen: Boston and New York, 1830 (as published online by Project Gutenberg, 30 Sept. 2005). See also the online Thomas Jefferson exhibits in the Library of Congress.

1 comment:

  1. I am enjoying your blog posts very much. I am an amateur historian of steel pens, especially in the US, so wanted to add a bit to the background of your wonderful post. Jefferson also used metallic pens from at least 1808. In 1808 Peregrine Williamson sent Jefferson some of his pens and received a note back thanking him. Williamson's pens were being sold at least as late as 1813. In 1822, Jefferson sent a note thanking a friend for sending him some metallic pens (probably gold). In the letter he mentions, " "I thank you, Dear Sir, for the elegant pens you have been so kind as to send me; they perform their office admirably. I had formerly got such from Baltimore, [Williamson's] but they were of steel, and their points rusted off immediately." In another letter, his friend and famous painter Charles Wilson Peale, who is the person who first brought the polygraph to Jefferson's attention, and with whom Jefferson was making improvements to the device, suggests, "But if a steel pen is used to write with, and a quill pen in the copy, then the screw to the metal pen will be perfectly convenient for adjusting the touch of both. My letter of the 18th contains the advantages of using the steel [pen] and quill pens together, and which may obviate the evil mentioned in yours of the 20th." I'm assuming the "fountain" pen you mention above is the one mentioned in Jefferson's letter of 1824 to Bernard Payton. "I saw yesterday in the hands of mr Dyer a fountain pen, one of the best I ever saw. he said it was made for him by mr Cowan, a watchmaker of Richmond." which Payton was able to get for Jefferson later that month. - Cheers!