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Dead medium: the Edison Electric Pen, pneumatic pen, magnetic pen, and foot-powered pen
From: (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): MENLO PARK REMINISCENCES. Volume One by Francis Jehl

Dover Publications Inc 1990, originally published by the

Edison Institute, 1937
ISBN 0-486-26357-6

page 9

"Edison's electric pen was used almost universally in

business and professional offices during the late '70's

(((1870s))) and early '80's. He invented it while still

in Newark before moving to Menlo Park, and perfected it at

the latter place. (...)

"In operating the electric pen, I got my current

from a Bunsen battery consisting of two glass jars, capped

at the top and controlled by a plunger with which I

lowered the plates into the acid solution or drew them up

when the pen was not in use. Thus the life of the battery

was prolonged.

"The pen had a needlelike point which darted in and

out of the writing end so rapidly that the eye could

hardly detect it. This was operated by a miniature

electric motor small enough to be attached to the upper

end of the pen. The shaft containing the needle was given

its motion by cams on the rotating engine shaft so that

when the current was turned on, and I wrote with the pen,

holding it in a vertical position, it made innumerable

tiny punctures on the sheet of paper, tracing the words

that comprised the letter.

"After the master copy of the stencil had thus been

made, I took it to the 'press,' where it had to be spanned

in a frame before the copies could be made. A plain sheet

of paper was placed on the press, the stencil was laid on

top and an ink roller passed over it. The impression of

the handwriting was marked on the under sheet by the ink

through the holes made by the needle. It was said that

5,000 copies could be made from a single stencil.

"Its widespread use is indicated by the fact that,

within three years after Edison brought it out, it could

be found in the government offices in Washington, D.C., in

city and state offices, and in such far-away lands as

Australia, New Zealand, China, Brazil, Russia, and


page 94

"Edison worked out the principles of the pen while

at Newark and took its manufacture with him to Menlo Park.

Shortly after I went to to work for him I noticed one day

a large frame building not far from the Edison homestead.

It stood across the railroad tracks on the way to Newark,

and looked considerably dilapidated. Some one told me

that this was the building in which the electric pen had

been manufactured (...) It became a roosting place for

tramps along the railroad, but, eventually, I was to see

the same building rebuilt and restored to use as the first

commercial factory for making the Edison incandescent


"To operate his electric pen, Edison used a small

electric motor of the impulse type which drew its current

from a wet battery of two cells. This was the first

electric motor in history to be manufactured commercially

and sold in large quantities, and for that reason the

device has a peculiar interest to us today." (((Could

this assertion be true? Amazing, if so -- bruces)))

"The first patent covering it was applied for on

March 7, 1876, and was granted August 8 of the same year,

after he had settled in Menlo Park. It was Patent No.

180,857. Before that time, however, he had brought out an

'autographic press,' and what at first was called a

'magnetic pen.' (...)

"Edison improved this during 1877, bringing out a

'stencil pen,' a pneumatic stencil pen, and a perforating

pen. The latter (Patent No. 203,329) was operated by the

foot or other convenient power instead of by electric

current; the power was conveyed to the pen by a shaft with

universal joints. The pneumatic pen (Patent No. 205,370)

could be worked by air, gas, or water."