Clever letter writing tools: the Polygraph

Here is Martijn Slokker’s first blogpost:

While doing research for my course paper I made the fortuitous decision of watching the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams, a series that chronicles the political life of the second president of the United States, John Adams (1735-1826). In the finale of the series we see how Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), third president of the United States, starts writing a letter to John Adams. In this scene Jefferson sits down behind his desk and you see him writing his letter using an odd looking device with moving parts and two pen-holders. I did not immediately grasp the function of this device and decided to try and find out more about it. After searching for a bit I found the device in question: a polygraph. You can see an image of this device below.

A Polygraph (source: Wikipedia)

Today, most people would probably think of a lie detector when we see the word polygraph. However, the device pictured above was used as a copying device, making its name very literal. It allowed its user to create a copy of the letter he or she was composing. In the image above you can see that the device holds two pens. The letter writer would hold one of these pens and would start writing a letter. The second pen, being connected the other via various interlinked mechanisms, would copy the first’s movements exactly and produce a second letter that was an exact copy of the original. More on the machine’s workings and history can be found here: Polygraph (duplicating device).

According to Smith (1996), Jefferson, who found it very important to create duplicates of important documents, experimented with many available copying methods; his favourite one was the polygraph “which he enthusiastically promoted” (p. 16) after being introduced to it in 1804. Smith further writes that Jefferson also spent a great deal of time building a better version of the device with the help of a team that included the original inventor (John Isaac Hawkings, 1772-1855) and manufacturer (Charles Willson Peale, 1741-1827).

For a man like Thomas Jefferson, ingenious inventions like the polygraph would be a real benefit and timesaver in his daily activities. According to the Monticello’s website, the site of the historical landmark that was Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Jefferson wrote nearly 20,000 letters in his lifetime. He calculated to have received 1,267 letters in the year 1820 alone. One can imagine how a polygraph would prove to be a useful addition to his writing desk.

Having never heard of this device before, I thought it was a pretty clever invention for a time where photocopiers and printers did not exist. Do any of you perhaps know of more of these kinds of innovative contraptions that would greatly improve the quality of lives for letter writers in the Late Modern English period?


Smith, Catherine F. 1996. Thomas Jefferson’s Computer. Computers and Composition 13, 5-21.

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One Response to Clever letter writing tools: the Polygraph

  1. The article below was published in the now defunct magazine Gray Areas almost twenty years ago. (Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 1995 pp. 75-77). Antipolygraph.og founder George Maschke noted in 2008 that article “makes a good introduction to the pseudoscience of polygraphy” and “the criticisms of polygraphy remain valid today.” They still do.

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