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.
How the Electric Pen Works
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 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 is 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. Another problem was if the needle moved in any way other than up or down. 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 seems to be an 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 seems to be an overall 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 tables of the needle, the stencil would be laid over paper on a press that came with the pen. The press
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Baldwin, Neil. Edison; Inventing the Century, Hyperion New York, New York, 1995.
Wheeler, W.F. Edison's Electric Pen and Press. 5000 Copies from a cingle writing..., New York General Eastern Agents, 1876.