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Getting Inked Up? Thank Thomas Edison

Edison's electric pen was designed for printing documents. But it's still used today for tattooing

9 min read

Getting Inked Up? Thank Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison's electric pen worked like a cross between a dentist's drill and a sewing machine.

Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, Ctrl+P. Copy, Paste, Print. Or maybe skip that last step and don’t print at all. In our digital world, we’re growing accustomed to exchanging documents over email or text and never dealing with a hard copy. (This column itself exists primarily in digital form—the print version is a mere shadow of its online self.) It’s increasingly hard to remember a time when a document always meant something printed on paper.

Edison’s invention electrified the making of stencils

But 150 years ago, documents were paper, even though there was no easy, inexpensive way to print or copy them. Thomas Edison understood exactly how laborious and expensive all that paperwork was, and he spotted a huge potential market of clerks, lawyers, bankers, and merchants who would benefit from a quick and simple way to duplicate forms, receipts, and letters.

“We struck the idea of making a stencil of the paper by pricking with a pen & then rubbing over with an ink,” Edison wrote in his notebook on 30 June 1875. The entry was cosigned by Charles Batchelor, one of his collaborators. Their first attempt to create such a device used a steel stylus to puncture the paper. But it took too much pressure to make the perforations. They decided to apply either a clockwork mechanism or an engine. Thus was born the electric pen.

In applying for what became U.S. Patent No. 180,857, an Improvement in Autographic Printing, Edison cited some much older technology: stenciling patterns for embroidery and fresco painting. His new device, though, harnessed the power of electricity to automate and regulate the perforation of a piece of paper, which would then serve as a duplicating template.

Powered by two wet-cell batteries and driven by a motor, Edison’s electric pen was a cross between a dentist’s drill and a sewing machine. [The one pictured at top resides in the collections of the Science Museum, London.] A needle extended from the stylus to perforate a stencil up to 50 times per second. The user would write or draw with a smooth, uniform motion to trace the perforated pattern onto the stencil.

The electric pen was part of a duplicating system that also included a cast-iron flatbed press and an ink roller. The user would transfer the finished stencil to a frame on the flatbed, making sure to smooth out any wrinkles, and place a piece of paper beneath the stencil. As the user rolled the ink over the stencil, the ink seeped through the holes, creating a copy. According to promotional literature, up to 5,000 copies could be printed from a single stencil.

The electric pen launched in 1875 and initially looked to be a commercial success. Edison quickly established a New York City office and by the end of the year had dozens of agents selling it in the United States and Canada. An 1876 advertising booklet listed 57 examples of uses for the pen, including invoices, contracts, labels, inventories, examination questions, sheet music, and cypher booklets. In case his list wasn’t exhaustive enough, he added “et cetera” to the end. By 1877 he had sold licensing rights in the United Kingdom and Asia and had agents in Europe and South America.

“But it will be harder to sell than you anticipate”

As early as 17 September 1875, Edison’s first New York City agent, an ex–telegraph operator named Mr. P. Mullarkey, warned that clerks were hesitant to try the pen. Edison’s pen was one of the first consumer products to be powered by an electric motor. Although he demonstrated the device to large crowds at places like the New York Central Railroad and the Merchants Exchange, people seemed reluctant to learn how to use it. Having reviewed the operating instructions, I can understand why.

A 1949 photo shows how Edison's electric pen was held.A 1949 photo shows how Edison’s electric pen was held. As the user moved it across the paper, a needle in the pen made perforations to create a stencil.Ernest K. Bennett/AP

“In writing, hold the pen upright, give it a firm, even, steady pressure, the same on every portion of the letter,” states a user manual produced by the Western Electric Company. The pen had to be held perpendicular to the paper; if you held it slanted, as most people hold a pen, it would not properly perforate the paper. (Based on user complaints, Edison soon altered the pen to be used in a more normal, slanted position.) The manual cautioned against writing too slowly or too quickly, or making rapid or light motions, especially in up strokes. Because the stencil would be placed inside a frame in the duplicating press, users had to leave a margin on each side of the sheet.

The first C that I ever received on a report card was for poor penmanship. I was in second grade. I suspect I would never have mastered the electric pen. Although the manual claimed that with a little practice anyone could get a feel for writing naturally, it also cautioned that the needle and the electrical wires could easily be broken in the hands of an inexperienced user. When in doubt, blame the user.

Convincing clerks to try a new technology was not the only challenge. The entire apparatus, although technically portable, was very heavy due to the cast-iron press. Mullarkey complained that the weight of the box nearly dragged his arms off.

But the real challenge was the batteries, which required a great deal of maintenance. The user had to mix the battery fluids and change them out weekly. Spilled battery acid could remove several layers of varnish from their laminated desks, and the chemicals smelled bad.

Edison, though, had come up through the telegraph industry, where operators were already familiar with batteries and their difficulties. He would later recall that he had been inspired to create the electric pen by watching how the stylus of the printing telegraph punctured the paper and left a mark. This is not a farfetched claim, considering that up until this point in Edison’s career, nearly all of his more than 100 patents related to the telegraph. He had yet to invent the gramophone and the electric power grid, and he wasn’t yet known as the Wizard of Menlo Park.

However, as Peter Uwin, a graduate student at York University in Canada, suggested in his 2019 article “ ‘An Extremely Useful Invention’: Edison’s electric pen and the unravelling of old and new media” (Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 25(4), pages 607–626), Edison was likely also inspired by William Bonwill’s electromagnetic dental plugger.

Bonwill received U.S. Patent No. 170,045 for his handheld device, which was used to fill cavities in teeth with gold through a succession of rapid blows. The 16 November 1875 patent predates Edison’s electric pen patent by just 10 months, but Bonwill’s device had been in use since 1871—four years before Edison’s annotation in his notebook. Furthermore, Bonwill’s dental plugger won the prestigious Elliott Cresson Medal, the Franklin Institute’s highest honor, the first time it was awarded, in 1875. Uwin argues that Edison knew of the dental device and put it to another use.

Was Edison’s electric pen a failure?

IEEE Spectrumuses the tag “Heroic Failures“ to classify some of the history stories it publishes. That’s the designation given to Evan Ackerman’s report on Parker’s radioactive Atomic Pen, for instance. Many heroic failures start out as promising ideas that were just a little ahead of their time; others seem outright ridiculous in retrospect. Some objects featured in Past Forward have been labeled heroic failures, but for Edison’s Electric Pen it’s an uncomfortable designation.

On one level, the electric pen was a success. It won a bronze medal at the Centennial World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876, and it received acclaim from enthusiastic users, such as the author and mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known to fans of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as Lewis Carroll). In a 13 September 1875 letter, Edison noted that “There is more money in this than telegraphy.”

But Edison was wrong, and the electric pen never achieved the commercial success he anticipated. Although there are accounts that up to 60,000 pens were produced, that number was likely inflated by the inventor’s own publicity machine. Bill Burns, who has done extensive research on the electric pen, estimates the number to be closer to 10,000. The pen still outshone one of Edison’s true failures: a creepy talking doll that even Edison came to refer to as a “little monster.” The pen was in production for several years while the doll was on the market for only a couple of weeks.

Illustration showing Edison's creepy talking doll. The electric pen wasn’t as big a failure as Edison’s creepy talking doll, which was pulled from the market after just two weeks.Getty Images

What’s more, the legacy of the electric pen includes not one but two branches of entrepreneurial development. The first comes from a licensing agreement Edison entered into in 1887 with Chicago-based Albert Blake Dick. Dick was in the lumber business and was tired of writing out the same letters by hand over and over again. He wanted a way to duplicate such materials quickly, and so he invented the Mimeograph machine. Recognizing Edison as a formidable competitor, Dick decided to partner with him instead. Naming the new invention the Edison Mimeograph helped with sales, although it obscured Dick’s contribution.

For Mimeographing, documents had to be prepared on a special wax-covered stencil, which could either be typed or drawn by hand. The impressions in the stencil were filled with ink and squeezed onto paper by the Mimeograph’s roller.

The Mimeograph was an immediate success and went on to dominate the midsize printing industry for decades. While small duplication jobs involving fewer than 5 copies could be completed using carbon paper, and large orders would go to a print shop, many print jobs fell somewhere in between. For schools, places of worship, small businesses, and community organizations, the Mimeograph was the duplicating technology of choice for making anywhere from a few dozen copies (such as a school exam) to several hundred (such as a community newsletter).

The Mimeograph didn’t have any real competitors until the advent of Ditto, Inc., another Chicago-based company. The Ditto machine differed from the Mimeograph in that it did not use ink. Instead, there was a two-ply Ditto master sheet, the bottom layer of which was coated with a dye-impregnated, waxy substance. As the user wrote, typed, or drew on the top layer, the pressure transferred the wax from the bottom to the back of the top, creating a mirror image of the page to be printed.

This mirror-image master was then wrapped around the machine’s duplicating drum. The Ditto machine’s duplicating fluid, a mix of methanol and isopropyl alcohol, dissolved the dye in the wax and transferred the image to the copy. Advertisements claimed the machine could make 120 copies per minute and up to 300 copies off a single master. Many users stretched the number of copies, with the resulting image degrading in the process. Although multiple colors were available, a distinctive purple was the most popular.

Both the Mimeograph and Ditto machines only began losing ground to photocopiers in the 1960s, and it took several more decades before they were fully replaced. I remember the purple copies and the pungent alcohol smell of papers fresh off the Ditto, which my elementary teachers mistakenly called Mimeographs in the 1980s. The mistake was common: The two terms became interchangeable even though they represented distinct technologies, and eventually “ditto” replaced “mimeo” as shorthand for a copy, similar to how “Xerox” became synonymous with photocopying.

True heir to Edison’s electric pen: the tattoo needle

The second branch of the electric pen’s legacy goes in an entirely different direction: tattooing. On 8 December 1891, New York City–based tattoo artist Samuel F. O’Reilly was granted U.S. Patent No. 464,801 for an electric tattooing machine. Inspired in part by Edison’s electric pen, O’Reilly’s machine had five needles, a tubular handle, and an ink reservoir. The machine offered the tattoo artist speed and precision, and it made the process of receiving a tattoo less painful (though not pain free).

Modern tattoo needles are electrified, much like Edison’s electric pen, to provide more precise control of the application of ink.Kymberlie Dozois/Getty Images

According to tattoo historian Carmen Forquer Nyssen, O’Reilly claimed in an 1898 interview with the New York Sun that he experimented with Bonwill’s dental plugger and Edison’s electric pen but decided they were too weak to penetrate the skin. The patent office didn’t find O’Reilly’s patent application sufficiently unique, and it denied his application twice, citing similarities to August Carey’s autographic pen (U.S. Patent No. 304,613) and William Henry Abbott’s sewing machine (U.K. patent 3,332). O’Reilly made some refinements, and his invention was finally granted patent protection.

Nyssen offers a more nuanced narrative about the origins of the electric tattooing machine. O’Reilly wasn’t the first and sole inventor, she notes; the idea had been floating around the tattooing community in New York City for at least a decade before his patent. The search for a more exact form of inking was likely due to the new interest in tattoos among wealthy elites. Tattooing had been practiced for thousands of years on all continents, but in Western countries during the 19th century, sailors or criminals were primarily the ones who went under the needle.

That began to change when Victorian-era British royals started getting tattoos. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) experimented with body art during an 1862 trip to Jerusalem, and his sons Prince Albert and Prince George (future King George V) got inked in Japan. According to the New York Historical Society, tattooing in the United States became popular among upper class women. A quality tattoo could cost more than a new dress, but less than a piece of fine jewelry. By the turn of the 20th century, three-quarters of fashionable New York City women had some sort of tattoo, according to one estimate.

For two decades following O’Reilly’s patent, tattoo artists tinkered with designs for tattoo machines, including ones derived from electric doorbells, which were gaining popularity through mail order catalogs. The value of an electric tattoo machine is that it regulates the needle depth. A single needle could be used for outlining, and multiple needles could be used for shading or coloring. The precision of the electric needle allowed for more detail and creative artwork.

There is some irony in the fact that the true heir to Edison’s electric pen is the tattoo needle. More than a century on, the modern tattoo machine looks remarkably similar to Edison’s pen, yet has the opposite purpose. The earlier invention was all about duplication and uniformity, the latter is all about uniqueness and creative expression. But the tattoo industry itself might be undergoing a technological tectonic shift. In recent years, entrepreneurs have introduced laser tattoos and tattooing robots. Neither have yet displaced the tattoo artist wielding an Edison-inspired needle, but time will tell—this history is still being written.

Part of a continuing serieslooking at photographs of historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.

An abridged version of this article appears in the May 2021 print issue as “Thomas Edison, Tattoo Artist?”

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