Electric Pen

Photo: Electric Pen Artifact. Edison and his laboratory staff developed the electric pen and press during the summer and fall of 1875. The key feature of this copying system was the electric pen, one of the earliest consumer uses of an electric motor. This motor drove a small needle up and down the shaft of the pen, and as the user wrote, it created a stencil. This stencil was then placed in the press, and a roller was used to squeegee ink through the holes in the stencil, creating a copy of the document.

Edison had high hopes of finding a ready market among merchants, lawyers, insurance companies, and other firms that "seem to have a great deal of reduplication." However, while his New York agent, an ex-telegraph operator named Mullarkey, found the pen and press "highly praised everywhere," he found that "Bankers and Insurance people do not seem to want to take hold of it until it is established" and that "the chief objection comes from clerks who do not want to use it." The biggest drawback though was the battery. Edison knew that electrical apparatus was not yet a common feature of business machinery and required messy acid batteries. Thus, the company that marketed his stock printer used main-line rather than local batteries that were taken care of by experienced telegraphers. When local batteries were required, experienced telegraphers were often employed to take care of them. For the pen to be successful, Edison had to find a way of making batteries acceptable to the clerks who would have charge of the apparatus.

Photo: Electric Pen System. While the battery continued to prevent some sales, the electric pen and autographic press proved to be a successful product, and Edison quickly established an office in New York. By the end of 1875, he had a dozen agents operating along the east and west coasts, and in parts of the Midwest and Canada. The market for the electric pen soon expanded as Edison sold the British rights and also appointed agents in Cuba and South America. By 1877, he also had agents in Europe and had sold Asian rights as well.

By 1880, however, the electric pen business was in serious decline because it could no longer compete "against a field borne of its own seed" as a host of mechanical pens that did not require batteries came on the market. One of the electric pen's offsprings was the mimeograph developed by A. B. Dick in the mid-1880s. Dick not only acquired rights to Edison's copying patents but also his assistance in marketing the system as the Edison Mimeograph. The electric pen had a second life in the 1890s when Samuel O'Reilly converted it into the first electric tattoo needle.

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