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Dead medium: the Edison Electric Pen, Reed pen, and Music Ruling 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

pages 96 - 99

"Many advertisements dealing with the pen or some form

of it were published in magazines and journals of the

time. One told of the 'Woodbury Holder,' designed to keep

the electric pen automatically in a vertical position,

thus relieving the operator of that necessity. It was, as

I well knew, hard on the fingers to keep the pen upright

while writing with it.

"The Woodbury holder could be attached to any pen and

was much liked 'by those who are not expert with it, as it

enables anyone to write in their natural handwriting

without practice.' Its price was five dollars.

(((Illustration: "In this picture the electric pen

rests in its holder, which formed part of the outfit and

held the pen when it was not in use. The holder was of

metal painted black and made an attractive desk


"Another device was the so-called 'Reed Pen,' an

extremely rapid form of the electric pen devised by Mr.

Edison for fast, skillful penmen. Its speed was so great

that it sometimes cut the center out of round letters.

Then there was the 'Music Ruling Pen,' an electric pen

having five needles for the purpose of ruling music. The

stencil paper had to be placed on thick, firm cloth or the

edges of paper when this particular form of pen was used.

Two batteries instead of one were required to supply the


"After the Western Electric Company acquired the

selling rights to the pen, it made quite a business of it.

In one of its catalogs there was a full page showing parts

prices for the pen from a bottle of ink to the complete

unit, which cost twenty-five dollars.

"Bought separately, a pen cost eight dollars, a wet

battery was five dollars and twenty-five cents, a press

ranged from eight to seventeen dollars, and a roller from

two dollars and twenty-five cents to three dollars and

twenty-five cents.

"Perhaps you would be interested in the directions

given for preparing a wet battery. (((Why yes! We would!

Consider that at this point Thomas Edison has not yet

invented the electric light. Without this killer

application for electric power, there is no electrical

power grid anywhere in the world. Every Edison Electric

Pen requires its own, individual power source, a desktop

chemical power generator, the "wet battery." It's a

fiendish and troublesome device containing zinc, carbon,

sulfuric acid and mercury.)))

"'Place the porous clay cups or cells in the glass

jars, one with the flat side turned from you and the other

toward you. Then attach the zincs and carbons to the

rubber discs so that one zinc and one carbon will be

secured to the brass posts, and one of each to the iron

screws. The brass posts always rest on the rubber discs,

the iron screw on the little brass strap.

"'Fill the porous cups to within three-quarters of

an inch from the top with red fluid.

"'Fill the glass jars to within three-quarters of an

inch of the top of the porous cups with water, into which

a tablespoonful of common sulphuric acid is then poured.

Move the porous cups backward and forward in the glass jar

a few times to thoroughly mix the acid and water together.

If this is not done the acid, which is much heavier than

the water, settles to the bottom and does not mix.

"Slip the battery plates secured to the rubber discs

on the upright rod in such a manner that the black plates

of carbon shall go into the porous cells, and the zincs

into the water.

"'It will be noticed that the zinc and carbon plates

on one disc are reversed on the other, hence the necessity

of placing the porous cells on opposite sides of the glass


"'The collar to which the two discs are secured is

provided with a screw sliding up and down in the long

groove in the rod, which prevents the collar from turning

around, and with a catch which drops into a notch on the

opposite side when the discs are lifted high enough, and

holds the plates out of the liquids. If they are allowed

to remain down when the pen is not in use, the sulphuric

acid and water would soon eat the zincs away. To prevent

this, they should always be lifted out after using.

"After considerable use the mercury with which the

zincs are amalgamated becomes eaten off, and the action of

the acid upon the pure zinc is more intense, causing what

is termed 'boiling.' This can be obviated by removing the

zincs from the discs, washing off all superfluous matter,

and allowing them to remain in the acid and water a few

moments; then remove and add a few drops of quicksilver

to them, making them good as new. By this precaution,

zincs will last a long time. (((Unlike the operator, who

will soon the suffering the tremors of "hatter's madness"

if he inhales enough of those mercury fumes.)))

"'The battery fluid should last from one to two

weeks, according to the amount of work it has to perform.

When it is in daily use, for an hour or so at a time, it

is recommended that it be changed once a week. Operators

will have to be guided by experience.'"