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.
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.