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The First! F. E. Stanley's Atomizer/Airbrush

   The first Airbrush?  F. (Francis/Frank) E. Stanley of  Kingfield, Maine, an award winning artist created an "atomizer" that is really the first airbrush of record in 1876. Stanley created it so he could spray "water colors, india-ink or crayon and also for all kinds of shading in which color can can be used in a liquid state." This patent was filed The next Walkup patent brought the wind wheel inside the body. on June 20, 1876 and granted on September 19, 1876. That's 3 years before Peeler made his "paint distributer" and 5 plus years before Peeler and Walkup filed their patent  on it. The patent office classifies Stanley's "atomizer" as the first patent of its type and the first in its class and subclass (239/354). 

   Prior to Stanley's invention, artists and draftsmen used atomizers to spray protective coatings so their drawings wouldn't smudge when handled or rolled up. This isn't just an atomizer converted to spray retouching media. It has several unique features that allowed the spray volume an quality to be controlled.

It has a needle to regulate the amount of fluid that's sprayed. This is 15 years before Burdick's use of a needle to regulate media flow. The needle, "D" in the photo to the left, is adjustable by turning the the set screw "D' ." This raises or lowers the pointed needle in the tapered paint tube "A." This is the same principle used in modern "internal mix" airbrushes to control the amount of paint to be sprayed. Turning the other set screw, "C," raises and lowers the tube in relation to the incoming air supply tube "B."  Moving the tube upwards, closer to the air supply tube, creates a coarser pattern. Moving it downwards makes for a finer pattern.

In addition to pioneering the needle concept, it has interchangeable heads to regulate the spray pattern. The paint and air are mixed in the chamber "E" and flow out the nozzle on the spray head "F." By changing heads, the size of the pattern can be widened orLiberty Walkup used Peeler's new "walking bar" on his first airbrush patent. narrowed. It could be argued that it is the first internal mix airbrush. Contrary to popular thought, modern "internal mix" airbrushes don't really mix the air and paint inside of the airbrush. The air and paint mix where the air passes over the tip of the airbrush and that's at the extreme front and just outside the body of the brush. A true internal mix "airbrush" would be something like a spray can that uses a gas to propel the paint out of the tip.

While it has some nifty features, it has a number of drawbacks. In order to adjust the needle you have to remove the paint jar. The other drawback is that it used a squeeze bulb for the air supply. It's safe to assume that at some point Stanley attached a better air supply to ease the "atomizer's" use. Unfortunately it was never available commercially and there are no surviving examples. He simply made it for his own use in retouching photos and in his artworks. An example of his talent is shown on the right in the exquisite ca. 1875 portrait of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The print is courtesy of the Stanley Museum in Kingfield, Maine.

In 1884 F.E. and his twin brother F.O.(Freelan Oscar) Stanley started the Stanley Dry Plate Co. using a new process they developed. The dry plating company was sold to Kodak in 1904. The Stanleys also made the famous "Stanley Steamer" steam powered automobiles. They also made violins. True Renaissance men! The Stanley's sister Chansonetta was an award winning and accomplished photographer and probably used the "atomizer" in her work.


The Stanley Museum - It's located in Kingfield, Maine, the birthplace of the Stanleys. Visit the site for more information on the remarkably talented Stanley family and their stories. There are some very interesting links, from steam cars to violin authentication.

Thanks to James Merrick the archivist at the Stanley Museum for his assistance with this page.

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