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What Is an Electric Pen?

Alex Newth
Alex Newth

The electric pen is an 1875 invention by Thomas Edison that was intended as an office supply and stands as the first safe motor-driven appliance for sale on the market. This invention — a pen with a needle inside — was made to make stencils used for duplicating a document. When the user wrote a document with the pen, the needle would go up and down, perforating the sheet and making it ready as a stencil used in a copying press. While seemingly useful, it did not sell well because the batteries used to power the electric pen were messy and dangerous; before battery technology could overcome this issue, others had created battery-free electric pens. The Edison pen was later modified and became the first electric tattoo needle.

Edison’s invention to duplicate documents took a fair amount of time to use but, for when it was invented, actually was a time saver. First, the user would have to write a document using the electric pen, which would make small holes in the paper. Then the user would place the paper in a press that was included with the pen and use an ink-covered roller covered on the stencil. A paper underneath would catch the ink, creating a copy of the hand-written document.

Thomas Edison invented the electric pen in 1875.
Thomas Edison invented the electric pen in 1875.

To power the pen, there was a cast-iron stand with wet-cell batteries. These batteries hampered electric pen sales for many reasons. Wet-cell batteries have vents to release the poisonous gas created when they generate power, and they were messy. Less messy batteries used by telegraph machines soon were placed in the electric pen machinery, but this meant telegraph operators were the only ones experienced enough to use the pen.

While the batteries were an issue, Edison’s invention initially was able to land somewhat successful sales. Aside from selling in America, Edison sold the electric pen on the international market. The pen was sold and licensed for use in South America, Cuba, Asia and Europe, which led to its initial success.

The electric pen declined in 1880, because a new market was born from Edison’s invention. New mechanical pens bypassed the largest issue with Edison’s pen: the batteries. This made the other pens more desirable, and Edison’s invention soon lost all market traction. He sold the rights of the invention to A.B. Dick, who turned it into the Edison mimeograph. Samuel O’Reilly modified the pen in the 1890s to create the first electric tattoo needle.

Discussion Comments


@feruze-- Yea, there was a small motor attached to the electric pen. This was the motor that drove the needle into the paper and it was energized from the attached battery.

I also think that this is a really important invention despite the lack of attention it received after several decades. I read about this electric engraver pen in Edison's biography and it really was a fast pen. It could make thousands of super tiny holes in the paper every single minute.

So people didn't have to write more slowly than they were used to. They just wrote normally but ended up with something that could be copied just with the use of ink. If newer and better inventions didn't follow immediately, I'm sure the electric pen would have been used for a much longer time.


The electric pen might not have been successful when Thomas Edison invented it and it might not have made him much money but I don't think that matters. The fact stands that without this invention, the copy machine would not have been invented either.

I don't think that Thomas Edison was as concerned about making money as he was about inventing new machines. He has something like 300 inventions which gave other people ideas and courage to keep inventing and making things better.

I think when we mention the electric pen, we should also mention that it's the forefather of the copy machine because it really is.


Wow! It's so interesting how one of Edison's inventions, the electric pen, developed into tattoo machines.

I actually saw an old electric pen at a museum but I had no idea what it was then. After reading this article and looking for some pictures, I realized that it's the same electric pen from the museum.

I'm still not exactly sure about the technology and how it worked, but one thing I do remember from the museum is a tiny motor that was on top of the electric pen. From the looks of it, it appeared to be really heavy. I can't imagine people writing with it for a long time because it would tire out the hand big time. Maybe this was another reason why the electric pen was not popular?

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    • Thomas Edison invented the electric pen in 1875.
      By: nickolae
      Thomas Edison invented the electric pen in 1875.