Electric Pen

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Sketch by Edison of Electric Pen
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Electric Pen image from electricpen.org


The patent for Edison's Electric Pen, entitled Improvement in Autographic Printing was filed on March 13, 1876. The Electric Pen was Edison's "first experimental work in document copying and multiple duplication" (Baldwin 69). The device was invented for the niche market of business men needing to multiple copies of legal documents. The pen, however, was more versatile than for just business purposes and was popular and sold well. Beginning at the bargain price of just 35 dollars the Edison Electric Pen was marketed for any use from personal letters, music, contracts, manifestos, and artistic drawings. The pen was first sold exclusively to the east coast but quickly exanded to the midwest and to British Columbia and England. Eventually, Edison sold the rights to the Western Electric company, but the rights and patent finally ended up in the hands A.B. Dick of Chicago who developed the next reduplication invention: the mimeograph.

An advertisement described the Electric Pen as "Like Kissing- Every Succeeding Impression is as Good as the First- Endorsed By Every One Who Has Tried It!- Only A Gentle Pressure Used" (Baldwin 71). The illustration is of a couple embracing in a kiss while the words float around them romantically. The Pen was advertised as being easy to use, cheap, versatile, and all around incredible. The use and need of the electric pen extended to everyone from railroad officials to anyone needing private copies of private documents. "The Pen is capable of producing the finest line, or closest written matter, and the heaviest solid or shaded letter and writing" (Wheeler). If the stencil was perfect all impressions were as well. The Electric Pen was a was a success for Edison that sold well and was liked. Any post prepared by the electric pen qualified as third class mail at one cent per ounce.

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"London, Printed for Private Circulation on the Edison Electrical Autographic Press 1876" from A question of authorship, involving a case of literary larceny by John Thomas Dexter

How the Electric Pen Works

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Early Sketches of different models for Electric Pen by Edison


The patent by Edison, describes the writing of the pen as, "patterns for embroidery and for fresco painters... made of paper" (patent). By having a sharp needle at the end of a stylus that moves rapidly up and down, small perforations can be made into paper or wax paper to make stencils. To break it down, the pen consisted of a metal tube or stylus resembling a pen or writing device. At the end would be the needle connecting to wires inside the tube that connected to a small electromagnetic engine on the top of the stylus to power the movement of the needle. The engine was then connected to a voltaic battery of two glass jars were held up by a metal stand. The most favorable liquids used are bichromate of potash and sulphuric acid(patent). The connection between the pen and the battery can be disconnected by removing metal plates inside the jars to prevent consumption of materials when the pen was not in use (Wheeler). The most important aspect of the pen is speed of the needle and movement of the needle. If the needle was not quick enough to match the speed of the hand, the paper would either tear or the stencils were not complete or legible. Although the devise is more like a sewing machine or knife than a pen, the machine had to be able to work and survive while being treated like one. The slender shape of the stylus to resemble an actual pen was arbitrary and more difficult than it needed to be since the motor surely made the whole thing unbalanced. Since it is a writing tool it makes sense to structure it like a pen but in reality it might have been easier and less awkward if the shape was unique. Perhaps it would not have sold as well but the positioning of the pen would have been less unnatural.

Another problem was if the needle moved in any way other than up or down. Edison solved this problem in his Papers: from workshop to labratory where he notes, "We made a great improvement in the pen by...putting a guide above cam A (one of the wheels of the motor) so that it could only move the wheel up and down and not at all sideways" (755). Another problem was if the needle became loose, the script would be messy and unreadable. The length of the wire from the battery to the pen had to be loose enough and long enough to not effect the movements of the hand. The electric pen was an overall awkward device especially since the pen had to be perfectly perpendicular to the paper, balance a rotating electromagnetic motor on top, and move smoothly despite vibrations moving a needle up and down at 8,000 perforations every minute(Iams). The electric pen was also a dangerous machine: an open motor, batteries in glass jars in which the connecting metal plates can and are suppose to be removed when not in use, and a sharp vibrating needle sold on a mass market level and advertised as easy to use (Wheeler).


The stencil was made usually on wax paper or bond paper which could yield 5,000 to 15,000 copies and 20,000 on tracing cloth (Wheeler). According to Edison parchment did not work well as a stencil, although regular paper seems to be able to work fine for just a few copies. Once the stencil was made, the pen tracing into the paper over a thick blotter so as to not damage any suface of the tables or the point of the needle, the stencil would be laid over paper on a press that came with the pen. The press was a separate platform where the paper would be laid down and the stencil on top. Clamps were attached to hold the stencil in place to ensure legibility and neatness. The clamps that held the stencil could be lifted from the paper without moving either of the pieces for examination. The stencil could then be placed back down on the paper in the exact same spot in case more ink was needed. The stencil was lifted on a pivot on the hinges on the long side of the press just like a book. Convienent for beginners who have no idea how much ink to use and need to be constantly checking the impression made, this tool allows for second chances and second guesses. Using an inked felt rolling and diluted ink with oil or semi-fluid ink, the roller would run over the stencil to make one copy (Patent). One roll of ink could make numerous copies (Wheeler).

Autographic Print

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Example of Autographic Print from A question of authorship, involving a case of literary larceny by John Thomas Dexter

The actual script made of the electric pen is different from script from a regular pen despite Edison's aggressive campaigns that the pen and his electric one are virtually the same. They are not. The unavoidable and obtrusive material qualities of the pen– the vibrations of the motor, the weight of the motor ontop of the stylus, the leash connecting from the pen to the battery, the position of the pen on the paper- were all difficulties that translated into the writing. The awkwardness and complications of the machine that juxtapose the simplicity of the pen, all contribute to the way the stencil will be cut and also the way the ink fill the stencil onto the paper. Not considering the ink roller and paper press just yet, the print and cutting of the paper was not as easy as Edison advertised. Although versatile, Baldwin describes using the pen as "you held the 'pen' perpendicular to the surface of the paper, as you would any conventional writing implement." In reality writing instruments are rarely held perfectly vertical, Edison eventually acknowledges this with the Woodbury Holder. Print was also affected by the speed in which someone wrote, although the vibrations and motor of the pen would cause a writer to naturally write slower, if someone was particularly skilled the centers of letters could fall out. Mistakes and typos on the stencil would have to be ingnored and remembered to be crossed out later or else large ink spots would dominate and bleed over the paper. As mentioned earlier, the ink used was diluted and semi-fluid, but like all stencils the ink cannot be completely contained. As seen in the Autographic print example taken from text actually printed using an electric pen their is bleeding. That is not coming from the back of the page, but caused from either over using the stencil, the ink being too fluid, or just the regular imperfections or difficulties of using ink rollers.

Electric Pen Improved and Remediated

The Woodbury Holder

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The Woodbury Holder

Since writing with the electric pen was so unnatural, because no one can write at a perfect perpendicular angle, the Woodbury Holder was sold to make the writing easier. The Woodbury Holder literally held the electric pen so it was always at a 90 degree angle. "The weight of the Electric Pen rests upon the point of the tube and the small leg which projects to the right of the holder" (Wheeler). The holder or handle extends outwards from the pen and looks like and is in the position of an actual pen. By moving the pen-like handle and exerting a little pressure the Electric Pen will move as you move the handle. The displacement of the writing is similar to that of cameras in which the lens and the view finder are at different angles and must be rectified before shooting the picture. The Woodbury Holder displaces the point of writing to make it easier for beginners to use the pen and also lessen the "jar" of the pens vibrations. The Woodbury Holder was sold at 5 dollars (Wheeler).

Reed Pen

Although the Electric Pen is a writing instrument is doesn't connect words or make lines. The tiny perforations are not connected but instead made small enough so the ink will fill in the minuscule spaces. The obvious thing about the Electric Pen is that it is really more like a sewing machine and the words cannot connect or else the centers of the letter o's and a's and cursive letter s's will all fall out. Perforations are the obvious solutions to lines so the writer does not have to pay attention to where words connect or be prohibited from writing cursive or very quickly. The Reed Pen is the solution for those who write too quickly for the Electric Pen. Developed by Edison, the Reed Pen is for the expert autographic printer. "It is not recommended, except to very fast, skillful penmen, as the speed of the pen is so great that the centres of the letters are liable to cut out" (Wheeler). The Reed Pen could be bought for 25 dollars.

Music Ruling Pen

The Music Ruling Pen came with five needles to draw measures for writing music. Similar to chalk holders that can carry five pieces of chalk with equal distance and for the same purpose but much less dangerous. The stencil paper must be places on thick cloth and two batteries are needed to make good impressions. The complete Ruling Pen was sold at 30 dollars and just the attachment, which could be used on any Eletric Pen was only 5 dollars.

Crayola Cutter

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The Electric Pen remediated as the Crayola Cutter

The Crayola Cutter is the newest form of the Electric Pen but for kids and safe. The Crayola Cutter works in exactly the same way by perforating the paper, but used mainly for arts and crafts projects. Completely made of plastic, however the main parts to the Electric Pen are still there. The stylus resembling an actual pen is still used connected by a wire in which it is battery powered. The wire or string also serves the purpose of not losing the pen from the rest of the machine. The batteries are not separate and are held inside the press which serves mostly as a blotter, since the Crayola Cutter, although it can make stencils, is mainly for cutting things out. So the pen, wire, press, and batteries are still intact from Edison's original design but remediated for children. It can be assumed the speed of the needle (or cutting tool probably not a needle) moves up and down at a much lower speed. And although the function of the perforating pen-like device is exactly the same, the purpose in which it is used is completely different. The Crayola Cuter is not a reproduction machine but a safe and sophisticated alternative to scissors.

A Letter from a Baptist Missionary

Mrs. C.B. Thomas while traveling abroad in Burma for missionary purposes found a difficulty in keeping in touch with her many friends and acquaintances back home. She, however, did find a solution. "One can have some courage to write a letter if it can be made to answer for fifty or a hundred people. But how can such a thing be? This is the explanation. I have lately recieved from Boston one of Edison's electric pens and press which belongs with it. I do the writing; and, from the stencil which I thus make, two girls print off as many copies as I wish" (Thomas). Similar to sending one e-mail to many or "reply all," Mrs. Thomas printed off her own newsletters and without neglecting the larger purposes of her trip. Her letters, although mass produced, still resembles and was writtten in her own hand keeping true to the personality and intimacy that personal letters convey. She is no longer prohibited from communicating on a person to person level but now can afford person to many communication as long as she has the machine, its supplies, and the ability to write.

Works Cited

Baldwin, Neil. Edison; Inventing the Century, Hyperion New York, New York, 1995.

Edison, Thomas A. Improvement in Autographic Printing United States Patent Office. Patent No. 180,857. May 13, 1876.

The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: From Workshop to Labratory, June 1873 to March 1876 editors, Robert Rosenberu, Paul Israel, Keith Nier, Melodie Andrews. Johns Hopkins University Press, London, 1991.

The Electric PenThe Phrenological Journal of Science and Health (1870- 1911); Dec 1877; 65, 6; APS Online pg. 428.

Thomas, C.B. A Letter to Many Friends. Baptist Missionary Magazine (1873-1909); Jan 1879;59,1; APS Online pg 7.

Wheeler, W.F. Edison's Electric Pen and Press. 5000 Copies from a cingle writing..., New York General Eastern Agents, 1876.