The ubiquitous airbrush, that small, versatile tool that has become an invaluable item in a whole range of industries from car companies to beauty salons to porn magazines has had a long history. Airbrush artists with a strong sense of history will point to 1876 as the year that the first airbrush-type tool was invented. Francis Edgar Stanley of Massachusetts was issued Patent No. 182,389 for a “paint distributor/atomizer” process which he and his twin brother used for continuously coating photographic plates in their Stanley Dry Plate Company. The business was eventually sold to Eastman Kodak, and the Stanley twins went on to found the Stanley Motor Carriage Company, which made a car popularly know as the Stanley Steamer.
The first instrument actually called an airbrush was developed by Abner Peeler of Iowa in 1879 for “painting of watercolors and other artistic purposes”. A crude machine, using a hand-operated compressor, it was assembled from old screwdrivers, welding machines and other spare parts scrounged from a jeweler's workshop. After a couple of years, Liberty and Charles Walkup of Illinois bought Peeler's patent and a few years later, in 1883, they formed The Rockford Manufacturing Company to produce the airbrush. The company's name was later changed to The Airbrush Manufacturing Company. An Air Brush School was set up in Illinois and there Liberty Walkup taught airbrush technique to Wilson Irvine, the master American impressionist landscape painter whose works hang in the Smithsonian and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In 1890, Charles Burdick was awarded a patent for an external mix airbrush and in 1892, he filed for a patent for the first internal mix airbrush. The Burdick airbrush worked very differently from the Peeler version, and looked very much like today's airbrush with a pen-like body. In 1893, Burdick relocated to England where he acquired a British patent for the airbrush, which he renamed an Aerograph, and formed a company which eventually was named The Aerograph Co., Ltd. The company continues to manufacture and market airbrushes today. It was also in 1893 that the airbrush debuted at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago where it was presented by Thayer & Chandler who had entered into an agreement with Burdick. Thayer & Chandler is the predecessor of the Badger Air-brush Company which is still a major supplier of airbrush products.
The Burdick design still had flaws. Paint would build up on the sides of the body. This problem was solved by Olaus Wold, a foreman at Thayer & Chandler. In 1896, Wold was awarded a patent for an airbrush with a replaceable nozzle which eliminated the problem, streamlined the airbrush and the way it is used. The Wold design was another milestone in the history of the airbrush. He formed the Wold Airbrush Company in 1899 and through the years, Wold airbrushes were known for their durability, fit and finish. The company went out of business in 1980, but the rights to the designs were acquired by a company in New Zealand which produces Wold airbrushes today.