FTL Design
History of Technology

 

Edison's Electric Pen
1875: the beginning of office copying technology
by Bill Burns

Research Request

If you know of the location of an electric pen
not in the Registry below, please email me

Edison's electric pen was the first electric motor driven appliance produced and sold in the United States, developed as an offshoot of Edison's telegraphy research.

Edison and Batchelor noticed that as the stylus of their printing telegraph punctured the paper, the chemical solution left a mark underneath. This led them to conceive of using a perforated sheet of paper as a stencil for making multiple copies, and to develop the electric pen as a perforating device. US patent 180,857 for "autographic printing" was issued to Edison on 8 August 1876.

Electric pen outfit at Greenfield Village

The electric pen was sold as part of a complete duplicating outfit, which included the pen, a cast-iron holder with a wooden insert, a wet-cell battery on a cast-iron stand, and a cast-iron flatbed duplicating press with ink roller. All the cast-iron parts were black japanned, with gold striping or decoration. The hand-held electric pen was powered by the wet-cell battery, which was wired to an electric motor mounted on top of a pen-like shaft. The motor drove a reciprocating needle which, according to the manual, could make 50 punctures per second, or 3,000 per minute. The user was instructed to place the stencil on firm blotting paper on a flat surface, then use the pen to write or draw naturally to form words and designs as a series of minute perforations in the stencil.

Later duplicating processes used a wax stencil, but the instruction manuals for Edison's Electric(al) Pen and Duplicating Press variously call for a stencil of "common writing paper" (in Charles Batchelor's manual), and "Crane's Bank Folio" paper (in George Bliss' later manual). Once the stencil was prepared it was placed in the flatbed duplicating press with a blank sheet of paper below. An inked roller was passed over the stencil, leaving an impression of the image on the paper. Edison boasted that over 5,000 copies could be made from one stencil.

The electric pen proved ultimately unsuccessful, other simpler methods (and eventually the typewriter) succeeding it for cutting stencils. But Edison's duplicating technology was licensed to A.B. Dick, who sold it as "Edison's Mimeograph" with considerable success. The company remained in business as an office products and equipment manufacturer until 2004.

The Edison Papers site has a short article on the electric pen.

For a detailed history of the invention and production of the electric pen and duplicating press, see my ongoing research project.

The first batch of pens was made by hand by John Ott, working on a contract from Edison in Edison's Newark Shop, while Gillland & Co. made the duplicating press, ink rollers, and other parts. Ott also made the tooling for the first production runs of the pens.

Once the pen went into regular production, Gilliland & Co. took over all the manufacturing, operating as Edison's Electrical Pen & Duplicating Press Co. They had offices at 41 Dey Street in Manhattan and a factory in Menlo Park.

Many of Edison's sales agents used the electric pen and its flatbed duplicating press to print advertising material and stationery for their companies. The illustration above is from Gilliland's letterhead, created with the electric pen.

In November 1876 production of the pens was transferred to Western Electric in Chicago.

Electric Pen Chronology (courtesy of The Edison Papers website)
30 Jun 1875 Perforated stencil and autographic press copying system conceived. "We struck the idea of making a stencil of the paper by pricking with a pen & then rubbing over with an ink." Notebook page signed by Edison and Batchelor. [NE1676239]
20 Jul 1875 Electric pen model is tested. "Have had a pen for pricking made to run with clockwork, but found it no good so had one made to run by electric engine & it was finished today." [NE1676255]
3 Sep 1875 Edison instructs Gilliland & Co. to make "100 autograph presses, 100 ink rollers, 100 brushes, 100 ink dishes, 100 writing boards". [LB001013]
6 Sep 1875 Edison and Batchelor instruct John Ott to make the first run of electric pens: "10 pens same as model by hand to be delivered to the laboratory by September 17th 1875"; to then make tooling for manufacture of the pens, and to deliver 100 production pens by October 13th. [bb0017 LB001017]
13 Sep 1875 Batchelor writes to his brother Tom in England, giving a full description of the pen and press. [MBLB1016,7,8]
14–21 Oct 1875 New battery developed for electric pen.
30 Oct 1875 Drafts caveat for facsimile telegraph system employing ideas from his other inventions—e.g., the electromotograph and electric pen.
7 Feb 1876 Improves design of electric pen; laboratory machinists begin altering existing pens for manufacturer Gilliland & Co.
8 Feb 1876 Assigns a one-tenth interest in electric pen to Ezra Gilliland's father, Robert.
Winter 1875/76 With Charles Batchelor arranges foreign agencies for electric pen.
1 May 1876 Signs agreement with Marshall Lefferts regarding foreign rights to the electric pen.
Jun 1876 Given awards at Centennial Exhibition for his automatic telegraph system and his electric pen and autographic press.
c. 10 Jul 1876 Sells British rights to the electric pen to John Breckon and Thomas Clare.
c. 15 Aug 1876 John Breckon and Thomas Clare establish the Electric Writing Co. to market the electric pen in Great Britain.
28 Nov 1876 Agrees to have Western Electric Manufacturing Co. become manufacturer and domestic sales agent for the electric pen and press copying system.
17 Jan 1877 Begins two months of development work on a rotary, high-speed press for electric pen stencils, much of which is done by Charles Batchelor, who begins to resume role as Edison's chief experimenter.
With Charles Batchelor proposes a plan to George Bliss for establishing a foreign electric pen company.
26 Feb 1877 Anson Stager and George Bliss visit Menlo Park to discuss foreign rights to electric pen.
28 Feb 1877 Charles Batchelor accompanies Edison to Port Huron and then goes to Chicago to settle electric pen accounts with Western Electric, returning to Menlo Park on 8 March.
24 Apr 1877 Signs agreement with Batchelor, George Bliss, and Charles Holland for marketing the electric pen in Europe.
16 May 1877 Signs agreement with his nephew, Charles Edison, and former electric pen agent George Caldwell to exhibit his musical telephone.
10 Sep 1877 Files depositions by himself, Batchelor, and Adams in electric pen patent interference case against Henry Trueman and gives evidence in hand-stamp patent interference with A. E. Hix.
6 Oct 1877 Wins electric pen patent interference against Henry Trueman.
12 Dec 1877 Wins electric pen patent interference against Edward Stewart.

"Memoria Technica
for Numbers"

This is one of Dodgson's
mnemonic documents,
created with the electric
pen and duplicated by
him in 1877.

Charles L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), a prolific letter-writer, was an early adopter of the electric pen. He purchased one on 20 June 1877 from Parker's and used it to produce a number of his writings for private circulation.

The British distributor of the electric pen, The Electric Writing Co. Ltd., published this testimonial from Dodgson in their edition of the electric pen instruction manual:

July 11th, 1877        
I have tried the new Electric Pen for writing MS, printing and drawing, and consider it perfectly successful for all three purposes. For simplicity, expedition, and cleanliness in working, it seems to me to be quite unrivalled, and those who, like myself, often require twenty or thirty copies of questions or formulae, &c., will save the cost of the machine in printer's bill several times over in a year.
CHARLES L. DODGSON                        
Mathematical Lecturer of Ch.Ch., Oxford        

DSCN2485e.jpg (31114 bytes)

DSCN2472e.jpg (69557 bytes)

Exploded views

DSCN2555e.jpg (69319 bytes)

Detail of motor


To see the electric pen in the context of other 19th century
copying processes, visit the Early Office Museum site


Edison Electric Pen Registry

Several on-line and print sources have stated that as many as sixty thousand electric pens were produced (a number also quoted by the Smithsonian Institution, although this Smithsonian page cites no source), but it's likely that this quantity is far too high. The earliest source I have found for this number is an 1889 book by J.B. McClure, "Edison and his Inventions" (right), which describes "...the electric pen, over sixty thousand of which are now in use throughout the country", but I suspect that this number came from Edison's publicity machine.

The digital edition of the Edison Papers has numerous documents regarding the electric pen, but no list of serial numbers, nor overall information on quantities made. The highest known serial number on a surviving electric pen is 8739; the majority of pens examined to date have a serial number, so it may be significant that nothing higher than this one has yet been found. Further, an analysis of royalty statements found in the Edison Papers accounts for fewer than 4,000 sales between 1876 and 1894; even allowing for unrecorded sales, and in view of the serial number evidence, it's likely that fewer than 10,000 pens were sold.

An 1876 electric pen instruction manual, the cover of which refers to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition (running from 10 May through 10 November), lists users such as the New York Herald, Mutual Life Ins. Co., New York Central R.R., New York Post Office, and many other large companies, and notes "And 1800 others". Another manual from that same year amends this to "2500 others". But on 27 December 1876, Charles Batchelor, who was responsible for the duplicating business, wrote: "Up to this date we have sold (205) two hundred & five presses complete and quite some extras amounting to altogether to $3,880.28 for which we paid $2717 98/100 ..." [D7607B1]

These early users were supplied with pens and duplicating presses produced by John Ott, succeeded by Ezra Gilliland, both working under contract out of Edison's own facilities in New Jersey. Gilliland continued to make the equipment at Menlo Park until manufacturing was transferred to Western Electric in Chicago at the end of 1876.

A letter of 10 February 1877 to Edison from George Bliss, who signs himself "General Agent" of the Western Electric company of Chicago (at that time the manufacturer and domestic sales agent for the electric pen) notes: "The Western Electric are rapidly increasing their capacity, which I hope for months to come, beginning with March 1st, will be at least two hundred pens per month". But further communications from Bliss regarding production problems and late deliveries from Western Electric make it doubtful that this number was ever met, and this is confirmed by royalty payments recorded in Edison's ledgers. [D7711B]

A letter to Thomas Edison dated Dec 6th, 1878, from George Bliss, who is now "General Manager" of Edison's Electric Pen and Multiplying Press company of Chicago, shows Bliss to be alarmed: "I notice by the papers that you are adapting the Typewriter for the preparation of stencils so as to supercede the use of the electric pen. ... I can scarcely believe this to be possible and shall be glad to have you advise me what the facts are". [D7822ZCD]

These documents indicate that perhaps no more than a thousand duplicating outfits (each including an electric pen) were being sold per year even at the peak of sales activity in the three years following the pen's invention, and that by the end of 1878 the pen faced serious competition from the newly introduced typewriter. By 1880, there were also many other competing duplicating systems. This production volume information, the analysis of royalty statements mentioned above, and the serial number evidence make it likely that fewer than 10,000 pens were sold.

If you know of an electric pen not on the list below, I'd appreciate receiving its serial number. Pen locations will be listed as "private collection"; if the pen is in a public collection, I'd like to be able to list the location, although it's not essential.

Please email me with any information, or feel free to forward my email address to anyone who might be able to help with my research.

39 pens listed

= data present X = data not present Blank = unknown, pen not examined
Serial Number Patent Number Patent Date Location Notes
None     Science Museum, London Presented by Edison to the V&A in 1880. Item 1441 in the 1908 catalogue
None The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan
Pen is disassembled
None The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan
Object #00.1382.706.2
None Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, New Jersey  
None National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC  
None X X Private Collection (two pens) With battery and stand
None X X Private Collection, NY Has original ink roller
None X X Private Collection Shaft has slightly bulbous tip
2508 X X Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Missing pen shaft and needle.
2576 X X Sold by Skinner, Inc., Bolton, Massachusetts, 2005 Smooth shaft. Made prior to the issue of the patent on 8 August 1876 
3065     Sold by Skinner, Inc., Bolton, Massachusetts, 2001  
3503 X Private Collection, NY Has original stand
3497 X Private Collection Has original box, with serial number
3625 X Private Collection  
4245 X Sold by Christie's, South Kensington, 2003  
4263 X Old School Irons Shaft nut is marked "E.W.Co. Ltd." and "680"
4346 Sold on eBay, November 2006 to Musée EDF Electropolis, Mulhouse, France Includes partial box and French language literature
4534 X Triangle Tattoo, Fort Bragg, California Shown on their website
4627     The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan  
4724   Manchester Tattoo Museum, England  
4817 X Private Collection  
5332     The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan

Object #00.1382.463

5461     The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan  
5528     Sold at the Owls Head Transportation Museum Technology Auction, 1997  
5718     Private collection, Austria  
5995     The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan Object #29.1980.1133
6088 X Private Collection  
6594 X Private Collection, Australia eBay, July 2009; seller in France
6642     Offered on eBay, May 2008 Seller in Spain
6732 X Bristol Tattoo Club Museum  
6737 X Sold by Skinner, Inc., Bolton, Massachusetts, 1999  
7037 The American Museum of Radio and Electricity. Also has battery. Photos 1, 2, 3
7086     The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan  
8132 X Private Collection  
8243 X Private Collection  
8484 X Edison & Ford Winter Estates Museum, Fort Myers, Florida
From Charles Edison's collection; he apparently purchased the pen as part of the Ward Harris Collection of Edison material. It's possible that the pen has been restored, as the coil cover material appears to be new.
8609     The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan Object #00.1382.462
8625 X Offered on eBay, June 2009  
8739 X Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology at the University of Torino, Italy  

Document images courtesy of The Edison Papers website

Copyright © 2010 FTL Design

Last revised: 22 August, 2014