The first President with a copier was George Washington. You can see his copier at Mount Vernon when you visit his home.
The copier was a letter-copying press invented in 1780 by steam engine inventor James Watt. The press had a couple of models: the first was two opposing rollers, like the wringer on an old washing machine, and the second, Washington’s copier, had a screw mechanism.
Thomas Jefferson was mistakenly thought to have invented a copier, but the machine he had was invented by John Isaac Hawkins . The machine, called the Polygraph, wrote with a second pencil whatever the first was writing. That Jefferson didn’t invent the machine didn’t mean he didn’t have ideas to improve it. He exchanged machines for new ones, as Peale continued to perfect the design—often according to Jefferson’s suggestions. By 1809 Jefferson wrote that “the use of the polygraph has spoiled me for the old copying press the copies of which are hardly ever legible. . . . I could not, now therefore, live without the Polygraph.”
The copying press endured for a long time. The last U.S. President whose official correspondence was copied on one was Calvin Coolidge, President from 1923 to 1929.
In the 19th century, copying presses still had competition from copyists. A that time, correspondence was principally by hand with pen and ink. Indeed, heavy reliance on calligraphy continued in offices for decades even after the first practical typewriter was marketed by Remington in 1874. Until the late eighteenth century, if an office wanted to keep a copy of an outgoing letter, a clerk had to write out the copy by hand. Offices employed copy clerks, also known as copyists, scribes,or scriveners, men who typically stood, or sat on high stools, while working at tall slant-top desks. This profession gained notoriety from two famous works of literature. In Britain, Charles Dickens immortalized one such clerk, Bob Cratchit, in his 1843 play A Christmas Carol. In the United States, Herman Melville wrote a short story, Bartleby the Scrivener, in 1853 about a scribe in New York City who refused to leave his post even after being fired.
But we are getting far away from the initial question. Washington, the first President, had a copier. We wouldn’t ask if President Barack Obama had one; the answer is obvious. Modern copying goes beyond copyists and copy presses. It is the story of carbon paper, mimeograph machines, rexograph machines, and plain paper copiers – all devices that are being supplanted by a movement to go digital — paperless — in a world scarecely conceived of just a few years ago, let alone by Washington and Jefferson.
Want to know more about the history of copiers? Check out the references.