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The Autopen Model 50 [1] from the International Autopen Company[2] was used extensively by John F. Kennedy's White House to duplicate his signature.[3]

An autopen or signing machine is a device used for the automatic signing of a signature. The reasons for employing an autopen are typically of an emotional nature, intending to form a compromise between making every signature by hand and printing a reproduction of the signature, perceived as impersonal by the recipient.

The early autopens used a plastic matrix of the original signature which is a channel cut into an engraved plate. A stylus driven by two electric motors followed the x and y axis of a profile or shape engraved in the plate (which is why it is called a matrix). The stylus is mechanically connected to an arm which can hold almost any common writing instrument, so the favourite pen and ink can be used to suggest authenticity. The Autopen signature is made with even pressure (and indentation in the paper), which is how these machines are distinguishable from original handwriting where the pressure varies.[4]

Modern day autopens use a signature smart card or USB flash drive to store signatures and phrases instead of the plastic matrices. In addition, certain models can replicate entire pages of writing once a custom font has been created in a users handwriting.


The first signature duplicating machines were developed by an Englishman named John Isaac Hawkins. Hawkins received a United States patent for his device in 1803. In 1804, Thomas Jefferson began using the device extensively.[5] This early device was known at the time as a polygraph (an abstracted version of the pantograph) and bears little resemblance to today's autopens in design or operation.[6] The modern autopen called the Robot Pen was developed in the 1930s, and became commercially available in 1937 (used as a storage unit device, similar in principle to how vinyl records store information) to record a signer's signature. A small segment of the record could be removed and stored elsewhere to prevent misuse. The machine would then be able to mass-produce a template signature when needed.[7]

In 2005, the U.S. Justice Department issued a legal opinion upholding the right of the U.S. President to sign bills by autopen.[8]

Autopen users[edit]

Harry Truman is believed to have been the first United States President to use the Autopen as a way of responding to mail and signing checks.[9] Gerald Ford was the first President to openly acknowledge his use of the Autopen.[10] Autopen devices are used today by politicians and fundraisers to sign letters to constituents written by administrative assistants and clerical staff, and by other famous people to sign autographs.[11] A company named Studio Fanmail uses autopens to reproduce celebrity autographs onto pictures of celebrities.

While visiting France, President Barack Obama authorized the use of an autopen to create his signature which signed into law an extension of three provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act.[12] On January 3, 2013, he signed the extension to the Bush tax cuts, using the Autopen while vacationing in Hawaii.[13] In order to sign it by the required deadline, his other alternative would have been to have had the bill flown to him overnight.[14] Republican leaders have raised questions as to whether this use of the Autopen meets the Constitutional requirement for signing a bill into law[15] but the validity of presidential use of an autopen has not been actually tested in court.[16] During his term in office, President George W. Bush asked for and received a favorable opinion[8] from the Department of Justice regarding the constitutionality of using the autopen, but did not use it himself.[17]

Similar devices[edit]

Further developing the class of devices known as autopens, Canadian author Margaret Atwood created a device called the Longpen, which allows audio and video conversation between the fan and author while a book is being signed remotely.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Autopen Model 50". The Autopen Company. 
  2. ^ "International Autopen Company". The Autopen Company. 
  3. ^ Hamilton, Charles (1965). The Robot That Helped To Make A President: A Reconnaissance Into the Mysteries of John F. Kennedy's Signature. New York: Charles Hamilton Autographs. 
  4. ^ "The Autopen". The Autopen Company. 
  5. ^ Seabrook, Andrea (May 27, 2011). "Obama Wields His ... Autopen?". NPR. 
  6. ^ Benac, Nancy (June 27, 2011). "Obama's Signature: Is It Real Or Is It Autopenned?". Yahoo! News. Associated Press. Retrieved January 5, 2013. 
  7. ^ "Robot Pen Copies Handwriting From A Record". Popular Mechanics: 657. May 1937. 
  8. ^ a b Nielson, Howard C., Jr. (July 7, 2005) (PDF). Whether The President May Sign a Bill by Directing That His Signature Be Affixed To It (Report). United States Department of Justice.
  9. ^ Resnick, Brian (January 3, 2013). "When a Robot Signs a Bill: A Brief History of the Autopen". National Journal. Retrieved January 3, 2013. 
  10. ^ Cheney, Lynne (August 1983). "The Autopen". The Washingtonian. Retrieved January 1, 2013. 
  11. ^ Brick, Krista (July 14, 2011). "Rockville Company's Signature Replications Have Homeland Security Calling". Rockville Patch. Retrieved January 5, 2013. 
  12. ^ Mascaro, Lisa (May 27, 2011). "Congress votes in time to extend key Patriot Act provisions". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 27, 2011. 
  13. ^ Bruce, Mary (January 3, 2013). "Obama Signs 'Fiscal Cliff' Bill With Autopen". ABC News. 
  14. ^ Sawyer, Diane (January 2, 2013). "ABC World News: Signing It Into Law". ABC World News with Diane Sawyer. 6:30 minutes in. ABC. Retrieved January 6, 2013.
  15. ^ Jackson, David (June 17, 2011). "Republicans protest Obama signing bill with autopen". USA Today. 
  16. ^ Knoller, Mark (November 18, 2011). "Obama uses autopen, again, to sign bill into law". CBS News. 
  17. ^ Cirilli, Kevin (January 3, 2013). "10 facts about the 'autopen"". Politico. 

External links[edit]