A Wizard’s Scribe

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

The complete duplicating outfit including Edison's electric pen
The complete duplicating outfit including Edison's electric pen Wikimedia Commons

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.

In the public mind Edison remains not an inventor so much as an archetype. Self-made — with only three months of formal schooling — he is a living, breathing example of American know-how. In countless school-age biographies, Enterprising Edison peddles papers on a train, then prints his own newspaper from the baggage car. Eccentric Edison sleeps fully clothed on his laboratory floor. Eureka Edison tries hundreds of filaments for his electric light before settling on carbonized cotton thread, which emits a brilliant and lasting glow. These are accurate, if exaggerated, pieces of this puzzling genius. Yet the puzzle can be completed only by Entrepreneurial Edison, whose greatest creation was the inventor as master of mass production and marketing.

In late 1875, Edison decided to leave Newark and build a new laboratory on two tracts of cheap land in central New Jersey. The place was Menlo Park. That winter, as the electric pen found willing buyers, Edison's father supervised the construction of this first research and development lab, with space for a growing cadre of engineers, a place for prototypes to be picked apart for useful pieces, a pipe organ so employees could gather to sing during rare breaks, and shelves stocked with 2,500 bottles of chemicals. In January 1876, Mary gave birth to Thomas Edison, Jr. The inventor quickly nicknamed his son "Dash" to complement daughter Marion, whom Edison called "Dot."

With its patent pending, the "Electric Pen and Duplicating Press" went on display in 1876 at the United States Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. By the end of that year, Edison began selling the rights to manufacture and market the pen. One of the eventual buyers was the A.B. Dick Company of Chicago, which turned the print process into the first mimeograph. Within a few years, electric pens were punching out stencils in offices from Washington, D.C. to China. Then, like so many useful inventions before it, the pen was ultimately replaced by a better stencil maker, the typewriter. Edison's elegant little pen was obsolete.

But Edison now was dreaming of a machine that would reproduce human speech. Only a year after licensing the pen, Edison produced the phonograph and became world famous. Two years after, he gave the world light. By 1881, the same Menlo Park factory that had churned out electric pens had been retooled and was making hundreds of electric lightbulbs per day.

Edison kept a prototype of the pen on display in the Menlo Park lab. In 1876 the electric pen system had won a bronze medal at the Centennial Exhibition. As Edison's partner Charles Batchelor told it, the medal was presented to Edison in his New York office one afternoon. Batchelor and Edison then headed home to Menlo Park. Lost in talk about some new experiments, they left the medal on the ferryboat. Batchelor wanted to go back for it, but Edison said, "Don't bother, someone will surely have picked it up." He never mentioned the medal to Batchelor again, his mind already intent on the next wondrous invention.

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