It was an early lesson. From that point on, DeGraaf says, “He vowed he would not invent a technology that didn’t have an apparent market; that he wasn’t just going to invent things for the sake of inventing them but…to be able to sell them. I have to suspect that even Edison, as young and inexperienced innovator at that point, would have had to understand that if he can’t sell his invention, he can’t make money.”
As railroads and other companies expanded in the late 19th century, there was a huge demand for tools administrative employees could use to complete tasks—including making multiple copies of handwritten documents—quicker.
Enter the electric pen. Powered by a small electric motor and battery, the pen relied on a handheld needle that moved up and down as an employee wrote. Instead of pushing out ink, though, the pen punched tiny holes through the paper’s surface; the idea was employees could create a stencil of their documents on wax paper and make copies by rolling ink over it, “printing” the words onto blank pieces of paper underneath.
Edison, whose machinist, John Ott, began to manufacture the pens in 1875, hired agents to sell the pens across the Mid-Atlantic. Edison charged agents $20 a pen; the agents sold them for $30.
The first problems with the invention were purely cosmetic: the electric pen was noisy, and much heavier than those employees had used in the past. But even after Edison improved the sound and weight, problems persisted. The batteries had to be maintained using chemical solutions in a jar. “It was messy,” says DeGraaf.
By 1877, Edison was involved in the telephone and thinking about what would eventually become the phonograph; he abandoned the project, assigning the rights to Western Electric Manufacturing Co. Edison received pen royalties into the early 1880s.
Even though the electric pen wasn’t a home run for Edison, it paved the way for other innovators. Albert B. Dick purchased one of the pen’s patented technologies to create the mimeograph, a stencil copier that spread quickly from schools to offices to churches, DeGraaf says. And while it’s hard to trace for sure, the electric pen is also often considered the predecessor of the modern tattoo needle.
The tinfoil phonograph
Edison debuted one of his most successful inventions, the phonograph, in 1888. “I’ve made some machines, but this is my baby and I expect it to grow up to be a big feller and support me in my old age,” he once quipped. But getting a perfected machine to market was a journey that took nearly a decade—and plenty of trial and error.