Electric pen

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The complete duplicating outfit including Edison's electric pen.

Thomas Edison's electric pen, part of a complete outfit for duplicating handwritten documents and drawings, was the first relatively safe electric motor driven office appliance produced and sold in the United States.


The electric pen was developed as an offshoot of Edison's telegraphy research. Thomas Edison and Charles Batchelor noticed that as the stylus of their printing telegraph punctured the paper, the chemical solution left a mark underneath. This led Edison to conceive in June 1875 the idea of using a perforated sheet of paper as a stencil for making multiple copies, and to develop the electric pen as a perforating device. Later duplicating processes used a wax stencil, but the instruction manuals for Edison's Electric(al) Pen and Duplicating Press variously call for a stencil of "common writing paper" (in Charles Batchelor's manual), and Crane's Bank Folio paper (in George Bliss' later manual). US patent 1800,857 for autographic printing was issued to Thomas Edison in 1876, covering the pen, the duplication press, and accessories.

Design and use[edit]

The electric pen was the key component of a complete duplicating system, which 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 japanned, with gold striping or decoration. The hand-held electric pen was powered by a 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.

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. The electric pen proved ultimately unsuccessful, other simpler methods (and eventually the typewriter) succeeding it for cutting stencils, but Edison licensed his duplicating technology to A.B. Dick, who sold it as Edison's Mimeograph with considerable success. The A.B. Dick Company continued in business as an office products and equipment manufacturer until 2004, when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and its assets were purchased by Presstek, a manufacturer of prepress products.

Modern Value[edit]

An October 2015 episode of History program American Pickers finds a European version Electric Pen in a private Wisconsin collection of early electric devices. The owner says recent auctions have seen other examples sell for between $15,000 and $20,000 USD.[1] This particular Electric Pen also includes a very rare battery box. The owner sells the Pen to the Pickers for $12,000, which they expect to resell at a higher price.

See also[edit]