The Electric Pen

When was the ball point pen invented? What about paper clips, or fax machines? Vic Hollefruend, our Retail Furniture Manager, is on the case, researching and compiling everything you would want to know about who, where, why, when, and how of office supplies. We are pleased to present Vic’s History of Office Stuff.

Between Hand-copying and Photocopiers

A while ago, I wrote a piece on the history of photocopiers. That got me to thinking; what did they do before photocopiers? Surely there was a need for multiple copies way back…whenever?

I know that if you go back far enough, you come to a time when people called “scribes” hand copied letters and documents in order to have many copies. But how far back? Well, not really that far!

Before the photocopy machine, there was the mimeograph; and before the mimeograph machine, there was…(Drumroll please)…Thomas Alva Edison and his electric pen!

Yep, you read it correctly… An electric pen!

Electric Prose

Edison’s electric pen was the first electric motor driven appliance produced and sold in the United States. It was developed as an offshoot of Edison’s telegraphy research.

Edison noticed that when the stylus of the printing telegraph punctured the paper, the chemical solution left a mark underneath. This led the inventor to conceive of using a perforated sheet of paper as a stencil for making multiple copies, and to develop the electric pen as a perforating device. So, on 8 August 1876 a patent for “autographic printing” was issued to Edison.

The electric pen was sold as part of a complete duplicating outfit. It included the pen, a cast-iron holder with a wooden insert, a wet-cell battery on a cast-iron stand, and a cast-iron flatbed duplicating press with ink roller. All the cast-iron parts were black, with gold striping or decoration. The hand-held electric pen was powered by the wet-cell battery, which was wired to an electric motor mounted on top of a pen-like shaft. The motor drove a reciprocating needle which, according to the manual, could make 50 punctures per second, or 3,000 per minute. The user was instructed to place the stencil on firm blotting paper on a flat surface, then use the pen to write or draw naturally to form words and designs as a series of minute perforations in the stencil.

Later duplicating processes used a wax stencil, but the instruction manuals for Edison’s Electric Pen and Duplicating Press called for a stencil of “common writing paper.” Once the stencil was prepared it was placed in the flatbed duplicating press with a blank sheet of paper below. An inked roller was passed over the stencil, leaving an impression of the image on the paper. Edison boasted that over 5,000 copies could be made from one stencil.

Slow Road to Success

The electric pen ultimately proved unsuccessful, since simpler methods (and eventually the typewriter) succeeded it. But Edison’s duplicating technology was licensed to A.B. Dick, who sold it as “Edison’s Mimeograph” with considerable success. A.B. Dick remained in business as an office products and equipment manufacturer until 2004.

Many of Edison’s sales agents used the electric pen and its flatbed duplicating press to print advertising material and stationery for their companies.

The Wonderland Connection

Charles L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll of “Alice in Wonderland” fame), a prolific letter-writer, purchased one on 20 June 1877 and used it to produce a number of his writings for private circulation.

The British distributor of the electric pen published this testimonial from Dodgson in their edition of the electric pen instruction manual.

July 11th, 1877

I have tried the new Electric Pen for writing MS, printing and drawing, and consider it perfectly successful for all three purposes. For simplicity, expedition, and cleanliness in working, it seems to me to be quite unrivalled, and those who, like myself, often require twenty or thirty copies of questions or formulae, &c., will save the cost of the machine in printer’s bill several times over in a year.

CHARLES L. DODGSON

Mathematical Lecturer of Ch.Ch., Oxford

By the way, the Electric Pen also led to the development of the modern tattoo machine. Who knew?

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