This is an example of the first duplicating machine, invented by James Watt (the famous inventor of the steam engine), patented in 1780, and manufactured by James Watt and Co. of Birmingham, England.


mahogany box, 13-1/2 x 11-1/2 x 4-5/8 inches (34 x 29 x 12 cm) closed


c. 1790

Country of manufacture

UK and Ireland

Categories: Scientific, Technology, Drawing Instruments, Communication, Office Antiques


JAMES WATT PORTABLE COPYING MACHINE, English, c. 1790, signed on a silver plaque “J. Watt & Co., Patent.” The outfit is built into a brass bound mahogany box, 13-1/2″ x 11-1/2″ x 4-5/8″ (34 x 29 x 12 cm) closed, with fine inset brass handles. The box is hinged, the lower section containing: a paper press of twin large ridged brass rollers, a large mahogany and brass crank handle, a green-felt-covered folding fiberboard platen, metal-foil-coated wood panel with two green fabric cushions, a lined wood tray, an oval silver canister, a cubical glass pot, a black cubical pot, and a rectangular tin container with gold painted floral designs on black enamel and interior fitted glass bottle. The upper section has a double-hinged mahogany panel with leather covered surface, plus two original containers of copying powder and the remains of a quill pen. Also included are an original instruction sheet for copying powder, a drying book with remains of a couple of no longer quite readable copies, and a supply of copy papers hallmarked “Prepared Copying Paper, S. Wise & Patch.” Condition is fine, the box with some probably later varnish, and noting minor losses and wear: lock missing, couple of wood chips, worming to leather, warping to fold-out wood in lid, ink lids missing, and a crank brass bend.
      This is an example of the first duplicating machine, invented by James Watt (the famous inventor of the steam engine), patented in 1780, and manufactured by James Watt and Co. of Birmingham, England. Watt was apparently seeking a way to save time in copying his extensive correspondence, especially that with his partner, Matthew Boulton. In use the original must be written with good ink, then pressed against a moistened sheet of thin unsized paper, and run through the rolling-press to transfer a bit of the original ink onto the copy paper. Watt recommended making a special ink for this purpose, either by dissolving his copying powders in boiling water to which “the addition of a fmall tea-fpoonful of good French brandy…helps to prevent it from moulding,” or by preparing, over the course of two months (!), a rather complex aqueous solution of Aleppo galls, green copperas, gum-arabic, and roach-alum. And for the best copies, the thin paper should be first impregnated with again a complex mixture of salts, oyster shells, etc., as spelled out in his patent (see Before Photocopying, Rhodes and Streeter, 1999). Sales of Watt’s machine were somewhat limited, partly by fears it would be used for forgeries, but among its many users were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and sales continued until such pressing machines were supplanted by carbon paper.
      The present machine has descended within a notable family; Paul H. Knowlton (1787 – 1863), a Canadian patriot of Knowlton, Quebec was an early owner. He had been the beneficiary of the large estate of one Sarah Knowlton of Darley Dale, England, and in the 1845 inventory of Sarah¹s estate, we find, in her library, “Book Cases, Cabinett & Shells, Copying Machine, Drawings and Minerals, Night Commode, Microscope….” (a photocopy is here included). Sarah’s grandfather was Thomas Knowlton (1691 – 1781) the very famous English horticulturist. $14,500.

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David and Yola Coffeen both have enjoyed academic careers, as planetary astronomer and as linguist/educator. But since 1982 (yes, 1982!) they have been full-time dealers in early scientific and medical instruments, under the name Tesseract. Selling primarily by catalogue (over 100 issued so far) they also have a web presence at www.etesseract.com, and can be contacted at [email protected]

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