Kishwaukee College Air-brush History Page

Our Story

Kishwaukee College and neighboring Northern Illinois University offered air-brush classes for many years in their technology divisions. There were always stories about how the air-brush was invented by someone local from the Rockford, Illinois, area but nobody seemed to know the exact history. In time, Northern lost their outstanding air-brush instructor, Dr. Edwin T. Boyer, and the technology division he taught under changed to the Engineering Technology division where air-brush courses were dropped.

During the spring of 1993, Kishwaukee College instructor Mark Schwendau had a student take air-brushing with him independent study. Oddly, the class she took with him was the last class she needed to conclude her MFA degree from NIU. The student, who does not wish to be named, discovered an inconsistency between three texts as to who the inventor of the air-brush was. Three texts listed Charles Burdick, Abner Peeler and Liberty Walkup as the inventor of the air-brush. Schwendau encouraged his student to research the area further and within three months she had conclusive proof, (a copy of the original patent out of Chicago) Mount Morris, Illinois, native Liberty Walkup was indeed the inventor of the air-brush by December of 1882.

It was discovered that Walkup had purchased the patent from Peeler, but Peeler had a patent for a theory and did not have a prototype that worked well. Peeler was a jeweler from Webster City, Iowa, and sold Walkup his 1878 patent idea for a "paint distributor" to Walkup for $10. Walkup refined and perfected Peeler's 1882 patent design for atomizing liquid pigment and repatented the "air-brush". The name was said to be given the device by Walkup's wife, who would later be founder of the Illinois Art School where the new device would be taught.

And Burdick? The student discovered that he had patented a similar device in London, England, after he relocated there without giving up his citizenship to America. He made claim to being the first American inventor of the air-brush but now that is known not to be true and one must question his motives of leaving his native country to secure a patent in a foreign country. His patent was granted in London, England, in 1884 after the Walkup re-patent of 1882. One must remember this was a time before international copyright and patent laws.

So, why should you care about this story? The air-brush was the forerunner to the spray paint gun which now paints so many products of today (like your car). Critics have said air-brush art is not art however, the air-brush, properly used, can produce "photo-realistic" renderings that rival all other forms of artistic medium. The critics now attack computer generated art as non-art. Today we see finger nails painted by air-brush, murals on vehicles, decorations on cakes, and trendy designs on t-shirts. Microsoft's C.E.O., Bill Gates, even thought enough of the air-brush to include one in his Windows "Paint" program as have most other creators of similar programs. Many of the companies that make air-brushes today are still located in and around Illinois, Walkup's home sate.

Schwendau went on Rockford television NBC affiliate in 1997 in a 3 minute segment where he was interviewed about the Walkup findings as a "Little Known Fact About Rockford".

And now for something completely different; Air-brush artist and scholar, Dr. Andy Penaluna of the University of Wales, stumbled onto the Walkup story about the same time as Schwendau's Kish student. Dr. Penaluna, also an author on air-brush articles and books, visited Rockford, Illinois, to use and photograph the last known copy of the Walkup air-brush. Penaluna had an agreement to do this so long as he did not reveal the identity of the owners, something that annoys Schwendau to this day. Penaluna and Schwendau have become friends via the Internet and Penaluna recently got Schwendau's blood up when he told him, "I just missed seeing you this last summer (1997) when I was out your way and picked up an original Walkup air-brush paitning at a garage sale in Mt. Morris, for a quarter." Penaluna also beat Schwendau at ownership of a Walkup airbrush.

Schwendau has a reward offer out for any "Air-brush Manufacturing Company at Rockford" or "Rockford Manufacturing Company" memorabilia. He has future goals of having the Ogle County Historical Society put up historical markers at Walkup's birth and resting places south of Mt. Morris, Illinois. He wants to display Walkup's products in the library of the college where he teaches.

Local Airbrush History

Air-brush History

Liberty Walkup was the inventor, and first U.S. manufacturer,of the artist's tool known as the air-brush. The air-brush is a hand-held tool that distributes liquid and powder material by air pressure. Liquids are sprayed from air-brushes to accomplish tasks that include decorating cakes, paitning murals, rendering technical illustrations, photo retouching and, most recently, putting designs on finger nails. Glass may also be etched using the air-brush by spraying aluminum-oxide powder.

Liberty Walkup was born on a farm three miles west of Oregon, Illinois,and about a mile south of Mt. Morris, Illinois, on July 4, 1844. He developed his design for the first air-brush between the years 1881-1883 and by 1884 started the Air-brush Manufacturing Company at Rockford. His company operated out of the Henry Building which once stood in the 100 block of north Main Street in Rockford, now a parking lot across from the library. In 1888 his wife, Phobe Walkup, began the Illinois Art School as a spin-off business from the air-brush company. Many art students from around the world first came to know and use the air-brush during their education at this prestigious mid-western school of art.

Both Rockford (or Walkup) air-brushes and students of the Illinois Art School were located world-wide long before any other competitors to Liberty and Phobe Walkup. The timeline section of this web site shows how the Walkup's, themselves, went all over the country and even crossed paths with Mark Twain!

Local Airbrush History

Air-brush History Timeline

July 4, 1844 - Liberty Walkup is born on a farm south of Mt. Morris, Illinois.

1878 - Abner Peeler, a jeweler in Webster City, Iowa, works on a "paint distributor".

December 1880 - Mr. and Mrs. Liberty Walkup move from Mt. Morris, Illinois to Rockford, Illinois .

1881 - Abner Peeler sells his rights to a patent he has applied for of an imperfect "Paint-Distributor" made of household items to brothers Charles and Liberty Walkup for $850. Charles is the major financial backer to the younger Liberty.

April 25, 1882 - Abner Peeler is granted a patent for his Paint-Distributor.

December 6, 1882 - Liberty Walkup further perfects Peeler's design and repatent's the device under his own name as the "Air-Brush".

March 29, 1883 - The Rockford Manufacturing Company is formed to manufacture Walkup's paint distributor with $50,000 in common stock shares.

October 6, 1883 - The stockholders vote to change the name of the company to The Air-Brush Manufacturing Company. Brother Charles Walkup leaves the company to return to the family farm in Mt. Morris to resume farming.

Summer 1884 - the air-brush is demonstrated by Phoebe Walkup at the World Exposition in New Orleans.

Fall 1884 - Will McEntee, an air-brush artist and Walkup ally, attends the Clover Club in Philadelphia where he prepares a portrait of author Mark Twain in less than 5 minutes astounding Twain and all the other banqueters.

May 1884 - Walkup patents the "double action" air-brush whereby a single trigger is depressed to obtain air and toggled back to deliver pigment.

1884 - Walkup receives the Award of the Silver Medal for Contribution to Art from the Franklin Institute exhibition in Philadelphia.

1886 - Walkup receives the Award of the Gold Medal of Honor from the Franklin Institute exhibition in Philadelphia.

1888 - Phoebe Walkup opens The Illinois Art School with 50 easels to offer air-brush instruction.

1890 - Some directors of the company try to force Walkup out but the stockholders side with Walkup and he buys out those directors who differ with him.

January 1891 - the first "Air-Brush Journal" is published by the Walkups.

January 1893 - the "Air-Brush Journal" becomes a larger publication know as "The Progressive Art Journal".

Summer 1893 - the Walkup's air-brush is displayed as one of the 32,000 exhibits of the World Fair in Chicago in the Liberal Arts Building.

1922 - Liberty Walkup dies and is laid to rest at Mt. Zion Cemetery south of Mt. Morris.

1927 - The Air-Brush Manufacturing Company closes its doors.

Air-brush Picture Gallery

Abner Peeler's "Paint Distributor",
April 25, 1882

Replicas of the "Paint Distributor",
and the early Air-brush

Walkup "Air-brush"
December 6, 1882

1883 documents announcing discovery
of "the Air-brush"

Last known working copy
of the Walkup's Air-brush

Internal view of Walkup's

Liberty Walkup

Liberty Walkup
Inventor of the Airbrush

Liberty Walkup
Grave Site

Promotional piece announces the
Walkup's Illinois Art School.

William McEntee protrait of
Mark Twain

Air-brush Manufacturing Company and
Illinois Art School, Rockford, Illinois.

1891 Air-brush Journal Cover

Air-brush Journal Page 1

Air-brush Journal Page 2

Air-brush Journal Page 3

Air-brush Journal Page 4

Air-brush Journal Page 5

We wish to thank Andy Penaluna for his tireless airbrush research and generous contributions of his airbrush graphics for our airbrush gallery. You may click on the link below in his picture to visit his website.