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86/457 Portable letter copy press, wood / metal / fabric, James Watt and Co, Birmingham, England, 1780-1830. Click to enlarge.

James Watt letter copying press

Watt's letter copy press was the first reliable copying machine, and its operating principle was used in office machines until typewriters and carbon paper came into common use (to be later supplanted by photocopiers and by electronic document storage and exchange). This rare example of a Watt portable press represents four trends: improvement in efficiency of office work; growth in the amount of paper used in offices; the creation of specialised papers and inks to facilitate the production of multiple copies of documents; and the manufacture of portable versions of larger machines to improve convenience for users and widen the market for a technology.

Before Watt invented the press and James Watt Jr and Matthew Robinson Boulton manufactured and commercialised it, copy clerks were employed to produce handwritten copies of letters and other documents. The press changed the job description of a copy clerk from penman to machine operator, and it reduced job opportunities for copy clerks while reducing the skill level required.

Debbie Rudder, Curator, 2013


Object No.


Object Statement

Portable letter copy press, wood / metal / fabric, James Watt and Co, Birmingham, England, 1780-1830

Physical Description

The brass-bound mahogany box holds a roller, a roller handle, a removeable water dish, and a badger-hair brush with silvered case, and is opened with a key. It has a drawer that opens to the left and is lined with green baize. The device used pressure, applied via a roller, to transfer ink from the original document to a damp piece of paper.

Copies of letters were made on very thin paper, so that the mirror-image copy made by transferring ink could be read from the other side of the page. Copies of engineering drawings were made on a larger press that worked on the same principle, but these had to be read in reverse because they were made on thick paper; hand-written notes on both the original and copy were made after the copying process. key located to hb1.d2,key/116


On the centre front of the drawer: James Watt & Co / of Soho.



This copy press was patented by James Watt in 1780 and made by James Watt and Co at the Soho Works in Birmingham, UK.

Watt invented the machine because he and his partner, Matthew Boulton, wanted to keep copies of letters to clients and to the wide circle of friends who shared their interest in science and engineering. Watt experimented with different papers, wetting agents and inks to perfect the method. He designed a large machine for use as fixtures in offices and this small portable machine for use at home or while travelling.



James Watt & Co was established to give the sons of James Watt and Matthew Boulton experience in running a business. We do not know the names of any owners of this press, which the Museum purchased at a Sotheby's auction in London in 1986.


Credit Line

Purchased 1986

Acquisition Date

16 April 1986

Cite this Object


James Watt letter copying press 2020, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 26 September 2020, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=James Watt letter copying press |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=26 September 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}


This object record is currently incomplete. Other information may exist in a non-digital form. The Museum continues to update and add new research to collection records.