A Little History Part I: The Early Years
Abner Peeler, of Webster City, Iowa, invented the airbrush in 1878. Peeler was a professional inventor and held patents on over 100 items, including the typewriter and the screw machine. The first airbrush was actually called a “paint distributor” and did not even remotely resemble the airbrushes of today. An oscillating airbrush in principle, it was made primarily out of wood and sprayed paint in what would now be considered a crude manner. It is known that the first airbrush was sold to S. M. Thomas for the fee of ten dollars. One month after the invention of the airbrush, the first painting was completed with it–a self-portrait of Abner Peeler done on an enlarged photograph.
At the time, retouched photographs were all the rage. The availability of photography to the masses brought about the development of an industry that produced hand-rendered portraits of practically every man, woman and child in North America. Prior to the invention of photography, to have a picture made of you or of a loved one took time and money and was available mainly to the leisure class. The subject had to sit for the portrait painter plus, of course, pay a fee, thus requiring both time and money. With the availability of a photograph, you needed only to send it to a specialty house that would produce from it a portrait done in either pencil, charcoal, chalk, pastel, watercolor or oil, depending on your budget. Most of these portraits were done on enlargements of the photographs, which were fuzzy and out of focus, but gave the portrait painter the essential drawing and information needed to complete a likeness that would satisfy the client. Remember that during this time, images weren’t as tight as those today, so the consumer was satisfied with lower quality.
In Chicago, a mecca for portrait shops, hundreds of people were employed to paint and draw on enlarged photographs. Two problems presented with doing the portraits were the instability of chalks and pastels and the time required to execute them. With the invention of the airbrush, which sprayed a dot pattern that looked very much like the grain of a photograph, the portraitist could work faster and in more permanent mediums.
Early airbrushes were propelled by a very primitive air source, also invented by Peeler. The air compressor was foot-operated, and the airbrusher would pump the pedals of the compressor that were attached underneath the drawing table. The air was pumped into a storage chamber where it was compressed, and a hose connected the storage chamber to the airbrush. In some instances an assistant would treadle the pedals to deliver air.
Although an eccentric inventor, Peeler was not a businessman. Three years after he invented the airbrush, he sold the patent for $700 to a man named Liberty Walkup. Over the next few years he would refine the airbrush twice, making $150 for both refinements, and then move on to bigger and better things. Walkup, on the other hand, was a promoter. Within the next ten years, he would propel the airbrush into the hottest art tool ever seen.Note: A tale about Abner Peeler: After having heard about the invention of the bicycle (invented in 1879 and refined in 1885) but never having seen one, Peeler went back to his workshop and built one. On its maiden ride, Peeler buzzed around his hometown, terrifying man and beast. Upon being horrified by the negative response to his new creation, he took it back to his workshop and chopped it up with an ax.
Reprinted with permission of ARTtalk.com