ENGLAND, circa 1795
The mahogany case or secretaire with brass edges opening to reveal the lid inset with adjustable writing surface with various compartments below, the main section of the machine containing two brass rollers and a detachable mahogany winding handle, an ink bottle with a gilt and painted toleware case, together with drying book, the draw below containing the damping box incorporating a silver oval label impressed: J. Watt & Co. Patent.
James Watt developed his document copier, which offset a written document by pressure onto thin, translucent, unsized paper to produce a reversed copy from the back, between 1778 and 1780. His invention was believed to be stimulated by the tedium he experienced in making copies of correspondence in his business. Adapted in collaboration with Matthew Boulton and James Keir, with whom Watt formed a partnership, for use with either a screw – or roller press and using their own special ink, the copier was patented in 1780. By the end of 1780 one hundred and fifty machines had been sold, and six hundred and thirty by the end of the first full year of business.
This portable pressure copying machine was developed by James Watt Jnr. and thus supplied the company with a new machine just at the moment when the patent for the fixed machine expired. By late 1795, the new copier was commercially available, and a pamphlet to accompany it, Directions for using the Patent Portable Copying Machine Invented and Made by James Watt & Co, was published in the same year. It was manufactured by James Watt & Co., Birmingham. Click here to download a PDF of the directions for use.
Successful on its appearance, and inspiring several competitors, the Watt copiers are historically important as the fountain head of the entire tradition of pressure copiers which lasted through most of the 19th Century. Examples of them today however are rare, but specimens of the portable machine are held in the Science Museum London, and in the Museum of American History at The Smithsonian, Washington DC.
Silvio A. Bedini, Thomas Jefferson and his Copying Machines, Charlottesville, 1984, 10-11 & 26-27
Richard Hills, ‘James Watt and his copying machines’ in Proceedings of the British Association of Paper Historians 4th Annual Conference, Oxford, 1993
Barbara Rhodes & William Wells Streeter, Before Photocopying. The Art and History of Mechanical Copying 1780-1793, Delaware 1999, pp.8-11
Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men, 2002, pp.306-7