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A Wizard's Scribe

Before the phonograph and lightbulb, the electric pen helped spell the future for Thomas Edison

The object at hand resembles a fancy eggbeater. Squat and top-heavy, it blends Victorian style with Industrial Age utility. It is Thomas Edison's electric pen. By the time he got around to making it, Edison was 28. He had been granted nearly 100 patents and had spent most of his adult life tinkering with telegraphs.

The pen contained no ink. Powered by two wet cell batteries, it acted more like a sewing machine than a writing implement, punching holes in a piece of paper to make a stencil. Yet in its time, the 1870s, it was the linchpin in the first successful copying process. Its tiny motor, the first commercially marketed electric motor, drove a stylus up and down at 8,000 punctures per minute. To "write," the user simply guided the pen over the paper, which was then set in a frame and inked by a roller.

Though Edison included it in a dream list of inventions, the electric pen has been all but forgotten. Only six are known to survive. This one was acquired by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History last summer. But before moving on, this moving pen had writ more than its own history. It was the first Thomas Edison device to be mass-produced and mass-marketed. Like a lightbulb filament blazing between connections, it bridged a gap in Edison's life, the gap between the little-known inventor of a better telegraph and the world-famous "Wizard of Menlo Park."

Prior to motorizing a pen, Edison's stock-in-trade had been involved with improving the telegraph. All but a few of his patents were for relay switches, signal boxes, printing telegraphs, and so forth. Western Union loved him, but Edison's creations were hardly needed in every home or office. All over the bustling commercial world, clerks still had to devote whole days to the tedious task of copying ordinary documents. Letters, receipts, bills of sale, were all written by hand, and all needed to be duplicated by hand. If Edison could make his pen turn out hundreds of exact duplicates, he'd have a customer in every office from New York to New Zealand.

"There is more money in this than telegraphy," he wrote to a colleague. "It is to the Country house [scholars think he meant counting house] what sewing machines are to the home circle."

If Edison wasn't yet working in Menlo Park, he was already a wizard who looked the part. A man of average bearing, he was almost always disheveled. His hair, prematurely flecked with gray, hung perpetually over his forehead until he whisked it away. His wide-set eyes seemed to burn with ideas, and because of a pronounced hearing loss, even in a noisy laboratory he could spend hours in meditative silence. In Edison's shop on Ward Street in Newark, New Jersey, he sometimes worked for 60 hours straight, catnapping, snacking at odd moments and exasperating his wife, Mary, by ignoring her nightly demands to come home for dinner. He had better things to do.

Edison's notebook entry on May 31, 1875, lists 19 "experimental topics" on his mind. Among them: "a Method of making 'Malleable iron' out of cast iron," a chimneyless kerosene lamp, a wireless electromagnet and "a copying process that will take 100 copies." Edison had already earned $30,000 by selling tycoon Jay Gould a quadruplex telegraph, able to carry four messages simultaneously over a single wire.

Finding the "copying process" turned out to be fairly easy. Edison had been "struck by the idea of making a stencil of the paper by pricking with a pen." Yet to keep from tearing stencils, a writer had to punch out (rather than scratch) each letter. This proved a time-consuming job until Edison realized a motor would regulate and speed up the process. He had already patented improvements in small motors, so he mounted one on a hollow tube, fitted a sharp stylus through the tube, then put a flywheel on top and a cam to transform rotating motion into up-and-down thrust. Finally, he wired the motor to two wet cell batteries, ordinary glass jars with zinc and carbon plates steeped in a solution of water and sulfuric acid. Do not try this at home.

The first pen and press, with a hinged frame for holding stencils, was soon finished. Edison found it could work small wonders. The first words etched by the pen were "Now is the winter of our discontent." With the stencil inked, the set printed up 100 perfect copies of the opening soliloquy from Richard III. Later, the pen even copied a photograph, tracing over the shape of Mary Edison in a flowing dress.

Moving with startling speed, Edison arranged to have the pen mass-produced. The retail price of $30 included a pen, press, inking roller, ink bottle and battery. Edison advertised in a circular written by the pen itself. The "Electro-Autographic Press," the circular boasted, was "the only process yet invented whereby an unlimited number of impressions can be taken with rapidity from ordinary manuscript." Another ad showed an embracing couple and proclaimed: "Like Kissing — Every Succeeding Impression is as Good as the First — Endorsed By Every One Who Has Tried It! — Only a Gentle Pressure Used." By mid-September, Edison's agents were selling eight pens per day in New York City alone.

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