An autopen or signing machine is a device used for the automatic signing of a signature. The reason for employing an autopen is typically emotive, 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 autopen uses a plastic matrix of the original signature which is a channel cut into an engraved plate. A stylus driven by two electric motors follows 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. Gerald Ford was the first President to openly acknowledge his use of the Autopen. 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. 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. On January 3, 2013, he signed the extension to the Bush tax cuts, using the Autopen while vacationing in Hawaii. In order to sign it by the required deadline, his other alternative would have been to have had the bill flown to him overnight. Republican leaders have raised questions as to whether this use of the Autopen meets the Constitutional requirement for signing a bill into law but the validity of presidential use of an autopen has not been actually tested in court. During his term in office, President George W. Bush asked for and received a favorable opinion from the Department of Justice regarding the constitutionality of using the autopen, but did not use it himself.
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.
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- Cirilli, Kevin (January 3, 2013). "10 facts about the 'autopen"". Politico.