The first airbrush, depending on the definition, was patented in 1876 (Patent Number 182,389) by Francis Edgar Stanley of Newton, Massachusetts. Stanley and his twin brother later invented a process for continuously coating photographic plates (Stanley Dry Plate Company) but are perhaps best known for their Stanley Steamer. No artistic images that used this ‘paint distributor / atomiser’ exist or are as yet known.
The first instrument to be named the “paint distributor” was developed by Abner Peeler “for the painting of watercolors and other artistic purposes” and used a hand-operated compressor. It was rather crude, being based on a number of spare parts in a jeweller’s workshop such as old screwdrivers and welding torches. It took 4 years of further development before a working prototype was developed by Liberty Walkup of Mt. Morris, Illinois. Walkup repatented the work under the name of “air-brush”, a name his wife Mimi Walkup came up with. His wife would later go on to be the founder of the Illinois Art School where airbrushing was taught to students from all over the world. In that same rented 4 story building Rockford Air-Brush would be established under Liberty Walkup. The Walkups taught airbrush technique to American Impressionist master Wilson Irvine at the Air Brush School in Rockford, Illinois. The first certain ‘atomising’ type airbrush was invented by Charles Burdick in 1893 and presented by Thayer and Chandler art materials company at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Burdick founded the Fountain Brush Company in the US, and launched the first series of airbrushes onto the market. This device was essentially the same as a modern airbrush, resembling a pen and working in a different manner than Peeler’s device. Aerograph, Burdick’s original company, still makes and sells airbrushes in England. Thayer and Chandler were acquired by Badger Air-Brush Co. in 2000. Badger Air-Brush continues the Thayer and Chandler tradition of manufacturing quality airbrush guns, tools and compressors out of Franklin Park, Illinois.
For more a detailed academic study, the University of Wales Library holds a detailed PhD on airbrush history. The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the Public Library in Rockford Illinois and the Conservation Department of New York University retain copies. This was authored by Dr. Andy Penaluna, now Professor of Creative Entrepreneurship at Swansea Metropolitan University.