FTL Design
History of Technology

Edison’s Electric Pen and Duplicating Press
1875: the beginning of office copying technology
by Bill Burns

 

Although he had set up a laboratory and machine shop in Newark in 1871, Thomas Edison continued to work for other companies. In May 1875, determined to become independent of corporate sponsors,Edison and his “chief experimental assistant” Charles Batchelor drew up a list of ideas which might be developed to support the shop [NS7501A], and in June 1875, Edison returned to full-time invention, a major turning point in his life.

The list is titled ‘Wanted May 31 1875” and has nineteen entries. Idea number 18 on the list is “a copying press & system that will take 100 copies,” and number 19, the final entry, is “A cheap process of printing new”.

These two entries were the ideas which became “Edison’s Electric Pen & Duplicating Press” later that year.


On this page of the Electric Pen website are an overview of Thomas Edison's Electric Pen and Duplicating Press, including some examples of work created by the system; the full text and diagrams of the 1876 Improvements in Autographic Printing patent; a chronology of the development of the system; a parts list with exploded views of the pen; and a registry of all known electric pens.

For a detailed history of the invention, development and production of the electric pen and duplicating press, see my ongoing research project: Invention and Development / Production and Royalties. Compiled from original documents at the Edison Papers Project (now The Thomas Edison Digital Edition), this section also includes a detailed analysis of each year’s production records and royalty statements from 1875, when the first outfits were sold, until 1894, when the final royalty statement for $6.63 was received by Edison from Western Electric.

The full text of an original Western Electric Company instruction manual for the electric pen is reproduced courtesy of pen owner Randy B.

Reproduced here are three early price lists for the Electric Pen and Duplicating Press.

The Thomas A. Edison Papers site has a short article on the electric pen, as well as a page of links to key documents about the pen.

2018 update: The Thomas A. Edison Digital Edition, as the online archive is now called, has become more accessible recently, and all material tagged as “Electric pen and mimeograph” may be viewed at this link (1249 items as of June 2018).

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

In April 2021 historian Allison Marsh wrote an article on the Electric Pen for IEE Spectrum magazine. An expanded version of the print article may be viewed on the IEEE website..

—Bill Burns

Research Request

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

A complete No. 2 Outfit, which cost $47.50 in 1876

Electric Pen and Duplicating Press - Overview
 

Thomas Edison’s electric pen is generally accepted to have been the first electric motor driven appliance produced and sold in the United States. It was developed as an offshoot of Edison’s telegraphy research.

Edison and Batchelor had 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 “Improvement in Autographic Printing” was filed on 13 march 1876 and issued to Edison on 8 August 1876.

Electric pen No. 1 Outfit at Greenfield Village at the Henry Ford museum.
A pen and stand are on exhibit at
the Menlo Park Laboratory there.

The electric pen was sold as part of a complete duplicating outfit. This included the pen, a cast-iron pen stand with a wooden insert, a wet-cell battery of two Bunsen cells mounted on a cast-iron base and connected in series to provide about 3.8V to power the pen, and a cast-iron flatbed duplicating press with ink roller.

Two sizes of press were available: The No. 1 Outfit took 7" x 11" paper, and the larger No. 2 Outfit could print up to 9" x 14". An intermediate size press for 9" x 11" paper was introduced later.

Many other parts and accessories are listed in 1876 and 1877 price lists for the “Electric Pen and Duplication Press” outfits.

All the cast-iron parts were black japanned, and some versions had gold striping or painted decoration. The hand-held electric pen, an electric motor mounted on top of a pen-like shaft, was connected to the wet-cell battery with a flexible cord. 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’s 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, forcing ink through its perforations and leaving an impression of the image on the paper. Edison boasted that over 5,000 copies could be made from one stencil.

This short video made by The Henry Ford museum shows how the pen and duplicating press were used.

The electric pen proved ultimately unsuccessful, as other simpler methods (and eventually the typewriter) succeeded it for cutting stencils. But Edison’s duplicating technology was licensed in 1887 to Albert Blake Dick, who sold his own system, initially as “The Edison Mimeograph” and subsequently “Edison’s Mimeograph,” with considerable success.

Front and back of “The Edison Mimeograph” promotional ruler, circa 1890

3,000 Copies from One Original Writing, Drawing,
Music, Etc. 1,500 Copies of Typewriter Letters can
be Taken from One Original
Recommended by over 30,000 Users. Send for
Circular and Sample of Work.
A.B. Dick Company, 152-154 Lake St., Chicago

Advertisement in The Century magazine, January 1890

The A.B Dick Company remained in business as an office products and equipment manufacturer until 2004.

Initial Production and Promotion
 

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.

Gilliland & Co. Statement

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. In November 1876 production of the pens was transferred to Western Electric in Chicago under the supervision of George H. Bliss, and Gilliland was then listed as General Eastern Agent.

Some of Edison’s sales agents used the electric pen and its flatbed duplicating press to create advertising material and stationery for their companies. The illustration above is from Gilliland’s letterhead; below are an undated flyer and an 1877 envelope from William F. Wheeler, General Western Agent, of 142 LaSalle St., Chicago.

Other agents used more conventional printing methods for their literature. Below are two items printed by letterpress: an 1881 envelope and an 1879 brochure for “Edison’s Electric Pen and Press” from distributor Ward & Gay, Stationers, 180 Devonshire St., Boston, New England Agents. The brochure lists three sizes of duplicating press available for the electric pen outfits..

Electric Pen and Duplicating Press - Chronology
 
Electric Pen Chronology (courtesy of Thomas A. 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. [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.
3 May 1880 Letter to Edison from his London agent: “The day for the Electric Pen has passed”.

“Memoria Technica
for Numbers”

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

In 1888 he bought a Hammond Model 1 typewriter, on which he also composed Memoria Technica.

 

Charles L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), a prolific letter-writer and document creator, 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)
Electric Pen Parts List
 
Exploded views

(The names of the parts match those in the Directions and Price Lists, when given)

Cast iron pen frame
Tube and screw (pen tube/handle and set-nut)
Needle shank (needle & brass drive rod)
Needle shank top guide and guide fixing screw
Magnetic engine coils (2), coil mounting plate, coil fixing screws (2)
Flywheel
Flywheel cam and cam set screw
Flywheel crosspiece and crosspiece fixing screws (2)
Flywheel shaft pivot screws (2) and locknuts (2)
Platina pointed spring (cam contact spring)
Platina pointed screw (cam spring contact screw) with insulating washer and locknut
Connecting terminals (2) with screws (2), one terminal with insulating washer
 
Total parts count: 31
(needle assembly counted as two parts since needle is replaceable)

DSCN2555e.jpg (69319 bytes)

Detail of motor

Sales Volume 1876-1894
 

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 archived 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 1885 book “How Success is Won” by Sarah Knowles Bolton: “...the electric pen for multiplying copies of letters and drawings, over sixty thousand now in use in this country.” This is repeated in the 1889 edition of the book by J.B. McClure, “Edison and his Inventions” (right): “...the electric pen, over sixty thousand of which are now in use throughout the country.”

The remarkable similarity of the wording in these two books published six years apart, which is often repeated in later accounts, suggests that the number came from Edison’s publicity machine.

The 60,000 number was also reported by Edison's assistant Francis Jehl in his 1937 book “Menlo Park Reminiscences” Vol. 1. However, Jehl would have had no direct knowledge of the production and distribution of the pen during his association with Edison, and writing sixty years after the fact he was almost certainly just quoting the publicized number.

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, and the majority of pens examined to date have a serial number, so it may be significant that nothing higher than this one has been found in twenty years of research. 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 “Edison Electrical Pen and Duplicating Press” promotional booklet, the cover of which refers to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition (which ran from 10 May through 10 November 1876), 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 pamphlet from that same year amends this to “2500 others”.

However, 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 ...” [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 ever sold. Even Western Electric itself, in an February 1881 advertisement, only claimed “10,000 Pens now in Use,” and that number was almost certainly inflated.

For much more detail, see the main article on Invention and Development, Production and Royalties.

Electric Pen Registry
 

Research Request: If you know of an electric pen not on the list below, I’d appreciate receiving its serial number (the four-digit number engraved on the flywheel), and whether the flywheel has a patent number and/or date. Note that some early pens did not have all of these details, but information on them is still valuable.
Pen locations will be listed here as “private collection” unless you wish to have your name or business attached to the listing. If the pen is in a public collection, I’d like to be able to share 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 this research.

50 pens listed as of November 2021

= data present X = data not present Blank = unknown, pen not examined
Serial Number Patent Number Patent Date Location Notes
None     Science Museum, London
Object number 1880-60
Presented by Edison to the V&A in 1880. Item 1441 in the 1908 catalogue.
Perhaps a prototype.
None X X Sold by Nye & Co, NJ, November 2021 No markings
None X X Sold by Dore & Rees, Somerset UK, October 2021 Perhaps a sample or early production, as it has no markings
None X X Private Collection Shaft has slightly bulbous tip
None X X Thomas A. Edison Birthplace Museum, Milan, Ohio  
None The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan
Pen is disassembled
None The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan
Object 00.1382.706.2
See also 00.256.14
and 00.4.3355
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
2508 X X Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Missing pen shaft and needle.
2576 X X Sold by Skinner, Inc., Bolton, Massachusetts, 2005
Private Collection, NY
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 pen stand
3497 X Private Collection Has original box, with serial number
3625 X Private Collection  
3678 X Daredevil Tattoo, New York Pen is on view in the company's museum at its tattoo shop in Lower Manhattan
4245 X Sold by Christie’s, South Kensington, 2003  
4263 X Old School Irons / Motor City Tattoo Museum Shaft nut is marked "E.W.Co. Ltd." and "680". Pens sold by the Electric Writing Company, London, the UK patent holder, had the company’s own serial number in this location. See also 4906 and 5684.
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  
4877 X Private Collection  
4906 X Science Museum, London
Object number 1990-423
Purchased in 1990 at Sotheby’s (New Bond St)
Has original pen stand
Shaft nut is marked “E.W.Co. Ltd.” and “856”
Pens sold by the Electric Writing Company, London, the UK patent holder, had the company’s own serial number in this location. See also 4263 and 5684
5430 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  
5684 X Tattoo Collection Amsterdam - Gideon Schory
Photographs of this pen may be viewed at Gideon’s Tattoo Collection website.
Also has number 1065 on underside of the knurled shaft adjustment nut
Pens sold by the Electric Writing Company, London, the UK patent holder, had the company’s own serial number in this location. See also 4263 and 4906.
5718     Private Collection, Ohio  
5995     The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan Object #29.1980.1133
6088 X Private Collection, NY  
6594 X Private Collection, Australia eBay, July 2009; seller in France
6642 X Offered on eBay May 2008.
Sold on eBay June 2015
Seller in Spain
6732 X Bristol Tattoo Club Museum  
6737 X Sold by Skinner, Inc., Bolton, Massachusetts, 1999  
7037 SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention. Also has battery. Photos 1, 2, 3, 4
7086     The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan  
8130 Private Collection  
8132 X Private Collection  
8183 X Randy B. in Oregon Has original Western Electric Company manual
8243 X Private Collection  
8448   Private Collection, France  
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 Thomas A. Edison Papers website

Copyright © 2005-2021 FTL Design

Last revised: 17 November, 2021