EdisonCropWhile doing research at the British Library last fall, I came across a thoroughly fascinating pamphlet advertising Edison’s Electric Pen, known more properly as “The Edison Electric Pen and Duplicating Press, for the Rapid, Accurate, and Economical Production of all kinds of Writings, Drawings &c.” I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this pamphlet in the wake of Emily’s and Gregory’s recent posts on nineteenth-century handwriting, particularly in terms of Emily’s interest in “the forms and functions of handwriting in a print culture,” and in relation to Gregory’s description of how standardized handwriting came to be understood, disconcertingly, as “the standardized script of a writing machine.”

Edison’s Electric Pen was patented in the U.S. on August 8th, 1876, as a mechanism to aid in the production of the enticingly-named “Autographic Printing.” The system consisted of a stylus connected to a motor, which drove a needle in and out of the tip of the stylus “with great rapidity” (Edison 1). The needle made a series of perforations in the paper upon which it moved, such that “writing” with the Pen produced a stencil made up of tiny punctures. The second part of the system was a small framed press (sold in two sizes!) to which the Pen-made stencil was to be affixed. By rolling ink over the stencil onto blank paper, copies of an original piece of autographic writing could be produced at the incredible rate of “five to fifteen per minute” (EEP 3).

The Pen is a wildly interesting mediation of the gap between the autographic and the machine-made inscription, positing as it does a lasting tension between the ever-changing cultural value of the handwritten and the economic exigencies that favour the proliferation of various mechanical modes of printing. To my surprise, however, it was the rhetorical construction of the pamphlet itself that really caught my attention, particularly in its inclusion of a series of testimonials written by satisfied users of the Pen.

These letters comprise more than half of the 24-page pamphlet, and come from a range of users of the Pen between 1877 and 1878. A notable celebrity endorsement comes courtesy of one Charles L. Dodgson, Mathematical Lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford, who writes: “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 a paper of questions or formulae, &c., will save the cost of the machine in printer’s bill several times over in a year” (EEP 11).

The letters reiterate a few key claims made by the distributors of the Pen, generally focusing on the simplicity of the device, which “can easily be mastered by any person of ordinary intelligence,” in the words of one commentator, even when, in another case, “the instructions did not arrive till some time after the Pen” (15). The detail I found most compelling about these letters, though, was the careful and repeated accounting of just how much paper-related productivity seemed to have been enabled by Edison’s device. Dodgson’s “twenty or thirty copies of a paper” proves to be an entirely paltry effort in comparison to the output of W. H. Bullin, principal of the grammar school at Dartmouth, who makes the following claim:

“I have only had your pen about a month, and on looking over the old stencils, which I always keep by me, I find I must have printed nearly eight thousand copies of various papers, lists, circulars, programmes, &c., during that time” (16).

Eight thousand copies?! As it turns out, Principal Bullin’s Pen-related production is not entirely the result of his educational duties: as he earnestly explains, he was also serving as “secretary to our cricket, choral, croquet, horticultural, and other societies, besides being Honorary Manager to our Sailors’ Home” at the time of his review. Bullin’s incredible claim raises a number of questions: How many copies of these “various papers” did he make before laying hands upon the Pen? Did the horticulturalists really need so many lists? Were the sailors exhilarated or exhausted by the proliferation of Bullin’s programmes? Does the Pen disguise Bullin’s pathological productivity as a normative commitment to community service? Is this the tyranny of technology in action?

In assembling these instances of self-reported productivity, the pamphlet advertises something much larger than Edison’s invention, something that relates to broader expectations for individual accomplishment in an age where technology can obliterate the limits of the body as the Pen does. The ideal user of Edison’s Pen becomes the ideal citizen of a modern, efficiency-oriented world, and the mark of physical immediacy that was once vouchsafed by autographic writing is translated into just another movement to be amplified and optimized according to a newly-reconfigured concept of productive scale. Through sheer volume, the Pen both secures and explodes the specificity of the handwritten.

Of course, there is much that deserves interrogation in the specifics of these statistical claims – the commentators could well be exaggerating their output; the letters themselves might be complete fictions – but the suggestion of such a graphomaniacal “average user” of the Pen remains intriguing. It also anticipates our own age’s preoccupation with individual productivity and technologically-abetted efficiency, as smartphones and ever-more-portable laptops allow us to do more with our minutes than Edison ever dreamed. As this pamphlet confirms, the path from using electric pen to being a writing machine was never a long one.

The Edison Electric Pen and Duplicating Press, for the Rapid, Accurate, and Economical Production of all kinds of Writings, Drawings, &c. London: Letts, Son & Co. Ltd. n.d.

Edison, Thomas A. Improvement in Autographic Printing. Patent 180,857. 8 Aug. 1876.

(for more on the Pen, see Bill Burns’ exhaustive research here)


3 thoughts on “The Work of Handwriting in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

  1. Fascinating post Fiona! I really appreciate your thoughts about how the technology, and its marketing, shapes its user in particular ways and introduces new ideas of productivity.
    I’m intrigued by your final thought about the way that the writing machine, that is, the electric pen, turns its user into a writing machine. What quality of the pen transfers to the person? Is it the quality of the automatic, or the proliferating, or the reproducible, or…?

  2. Was looking around and found your post about the electric pen. I had never heard of such a thing before. Very interesting. I’ll have to come back to your blog again to see what else you’ve unearthed.

  3. Thanks, Jen and Tom. It is a pretty wild invention, isn’t it? I promise to update the tale if I come across any more interesting information about the Pen.

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