Edison’s Electric Pen and Duplicating Press
1875: the beginning of office copying technology
by Bill Burns
Editor’s Note: Throughout this site, each document identifier enclosed by [brackets] is a direct link to the original document at the Thomas A. Edison Papers website.
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.
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 A. Edison Papers), 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 Thomas A. Edison Papers site has a short article on the electric 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 in date order at this link (1272 items as of August 2022).
To see the electric pen in the context
of other 19th century
copying processes, visit the Early
Office Museum website.
If you know of the location of an
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.
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) replaced the pen for cutting stencils. But Edison’s duplicating technology was licensed in 1887 to Albert Blake Dick, who sold his own system with considerable success, initially as “The Edison Mimeograph” and subsequently “Edison’s Mimeograph.”
Front and back of A.B Dick Company promotional ruler,“The Edison Mimeograph,” 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
The A.B Dick Company remained in business as an office products and equipment manufacturer until 2004.
Thanks to Doug Palmer for this short video
showing an electric pen in operation.
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 [HM760024] 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..
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]
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. [MB004]
With Charles Batchelor arranges foreign agencies for electric pen.
1 May 1876
Signs agreement with Marshall Lefferts regarding foreign rights to the electric pen.
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
[D8027D] Letter to Edison from his London agent: “The day for the Electric Pen has passed”.
This is one of Dodgson’s
created with the electric
pen and duplicated by
him in 1877.
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.
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)
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]
The first ten pens had been made by John Ott, with Gilliland & Co supplying the press and accessories, both working under contract out of Edison’s own facilities in New Jersey. After that, manufacturing of the pen was also turned over to Gilliland & Co., which continued to make the equipment at Menlo Park until the business was transferred to Western Electric in Chicago at the end of 1876. [HM760024]
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan
Offered on eBay, June 2009
Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology at the University of Torino, Italy