The main purpose of this dossier is to discuss how the methodology of copying, specifically through the lens of the electric pen, brought about copying documents and other media as we know it today. At a historical perception of the electric pen, one is able to see why the electric pen was soon replaced by more advanced forms of technology, as well as how it aided both typing and computing technologies for years to come through an archaeological lens. The electric pen, first invented by Thomas Edison in 1875, is often accredited as “the linchpin of basic copying technologies” (Watson, 1998). Although still around today, though rarely used, it is still considered to be one of the forefront devices for duplicating processes for documents and print.

This investigation will examine how the importance of such a necessity of copying came to be and the rise of it. We will also discuss through a media archaeological lens how the electric pen aided, and began, the revolution surrounding cutting down time and cost in copying of writing and other various documents. The dossier will bring forth a media archaeological context to analyze the history, the use of the electric pen and why it evolved, and its future states through history. In order to comprehend the underlying implications with this device, one must first investigate the medial archaeological ideologies surrounding the electric pen in order to discuss its prowess and importance during the 1870s and beyond. For this dossier, a specific emphasis is placed on the ideas of Lisa Gitelman and the explanation of how “comparing and contrasting new media thus stand to offer a view of negotiability in itself—a view, that is, of the contested relations of force that determine the pathways by which new media may eventually become old hat” (Gitelman, 2006, p. 6). At a more basic level, we tend to focus on the ideology that “all media is new media until it’s not.” Although the electric pen is no longer seen as a new media, it is important to investigate how it once was seen as such and altered the path of copying that we are all familiar with today.

Theoretical Framework

Using the theoretical framework laid out by Lisa Gitelman, we as well will start "... with the truism that all media were once new as well as the assumption, widely shared by others, that looking into the novelty years, transitional states, and identity crises of different media stands to tell us much, both about the course of media history and about the broad conditions by which media and communication are and have been shaped" (Gitelman, 2006). Gitelman asks the questions through her analysis pertinent to media archaeology. Her questions pertain to:

... about the ways scholars and critics do media history, but it is more importantly about the ways that people experience meaning, how they perceive the world and communicate with each other, and how they distinguish the past and identify culture. Different versions and styles of media history do make a difference. Is the history of media first and foremost the history of technological methods and devices? Or is the history of media better understood as the story of modern ideas of communication? Or is it about modes and habits of perception? Or about political choices and structures? Should we be looking for a sequence of separate “ages” with ruptures, revolutions, or paradigm shifts in between, or should we be seeing more of an evolution? A progress? (2006).
What did the electric pen mean to people at the time? As the technology became more pervasive, how did it affect or influence the way people communicated with each other? Once the shiny newness wore off, at what point did society begin to take the technology for granted?

With each iteration of the electric pen - the mimeograph, xerography/photocopying, and, most currently, 3D printing/copying - what did that mean for businesses dependent upon the idea of copying to maintain an income stream? As Gitelman notes, "... history comes freighted with a host of assumptions about what is important and what isn’t—about who is significant and who isn’t—as well as about the meanings of media, qualities of human communication, and causal mechanisms that account for historical change" (2006).

Gitelman's approach is all about context. How does society frame the environment in which these technologies emerge, proliferate, and, ultimately, die and are reborn?

History of the Pen


Figure 1.1: An original version of the electric pen.

The development of the electric pen was, first, brought about in hopes to reduce time and money of handwriting copies of important documents and make multiple copies at a time (Cooper, 1996). This device was powered by a battery with a small electric motor attached to the top of the pen; the motor drove the writing “pen” section of the device up and down quickly in order to make a stencil as the individual using it would write with it. The stencil would then be put into a press, as ink was then added in order to get into the perforations from the stencil, creating a copy of the document that was just written (Rutgers, 2012). Individuals of the late 1870s at first loved the pen for its newness and ability to produce mass amounts of copies in a small amount of time. However, it did have its drawbacks: the battery, which ultimately led to its demise. As the years went on, other inventors were able to reproduce the same sort of technology but in a smoother format. The electric pen was out of mainstream circulation by the early 1880s (Rutgers, 2012). This technology, however, was sold to A.B. Dick in 1887 and was sold under a different name of “Edison’s Mimeograph” until the company’s end in 2004 (Burns, 2015).

After this time, however, the electric pen did not go out of the mainstream spotlight for long, as it was reintroduced in a new format: for tattooing purposes. The electric pen was used, in this realm, as a new media again, although it had already been identified as “not new media” by its phasing out in the late 1880s. This “new” invention came from Samuel O’Reilly; the electric pen was used in its same format, except the perforations that were made from the pen had ink added and the pen section was replaced with a needle (Rutgers, 2012).

What Came from the Pen



Figure 1.2: A 1880s-1890s mimeograph.

The mimeograph was first introduced in 1887 from A.B. Dick after he licensed the technology from Thomas Edison (Santosus, 2001). This technology at the time was focused on copying small amounts of documents. They were very similar to the electric pen, as a handwritten stencil was also used, but the stencil is then placed in the frame on the machine, as ink is rolled over the stencil so that ink can be transferred from the stencil design to the paper. These mimeographs were incredibly similar to that of the electric pen, with only the wooden frame and the rolling mechanism added so that the stencil would be attached to the roller (Early Office Museum, 2015). This was added in order to increase the speed of the process, as ink could be directly added to the stencil and papers passed through more quickly. This also made the stencil more able to confer its image on paper in a faster time. Although this was an evolution for the electric pen, these technologies were still utilized; only altered to catch up with the increasing need to the new copying techniques.


Xerox 914

Figure 1.3: An example of a Xerox 913 copying machine.

Xerography was first introduced by Chester Carlson in 1938 in order to speed up the process of copying from the days of the mimeograph and its predecessors. Often seen as photocopying, Xerography is a process of copying that uses positive electrical charges in order to convert images onto another piece of paper through the use of negatively charged powder, heat, and photoconduction (Xerox, 2016). This process is laid out by light passing through the powder, which is the toner, or the negatively charged particles, where the image from the document appears on the image-reflecting drum; the positive electrical charge under the sheet of paper passing through meetings with the negatively charged particles holding the image, which then transfers the image to the paper as heat “sticks” it onto the paper, making a photocopy (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016).

Although it may not be apparent when first looking at this detailed process, xerography can be traced back to the technology of the electric pen. A form of a stencil (another paper) is used, and although not etched into the paper, is transferred to it. Ink (toner) is then pushed onto the paper from the stencil (other paper) and is then pressed onto the paper (heat is used to seal the copy). These media archaeological advances aided in creating the idea of being able to expedite the process of copying and further, led to the new development and advancement of copying.

3D Printing/Copying

3d printer

Figure 1.4: A modern day 3D printer.

Although a much more modern and “new media” of copying and printing, 3D printing is also a predecessor of the electric pen. First making its appearance in the 1980s from Charles Hull, the 3D printer is a basic system that layers material on top of itself as it “prints” in order to form some type of product by utilizing some form of CAD or CAM software as a stencil for the printing (Hoffman, 2015).

Although this technology is very modern and is still seen as a “new” media, it is evident that there are still hints of the electric pen in 3D printing. The print heads of the 3D printer are much like those of the head of the pen, as it would etch its perforations into the stencil. The stencil from the computer is then used to print and copy the image on the screen like the electric pen’s stencil would be used to make a copy of the copied document.

Theoretical Analysis

In the case of the electric pen, we must first delve into the philosophical underpinnings of the human desire to preserve written material. What is so attractive about the ability to copy, specifically? As the early oral cultures evolved (and I use that term loosely) into literate societies, capable of transcribing stories in written form, and, thus, distributing them for wider use, so too, did the desire to consume such literature. Arguably, at least in 21st century America, the drive for better, faster, stronger is the necessary result of our economic structure.

Though Marx and Weber were divergent in their theories, they both started from the same fundamental assumption. "Marx and Weber held that the new social values embodied in capitalist economic activlty were not 'natural' they were precipitates of historical development" (Birnbaum, 1953). So, too, might we extrapolate that idea to media itself. The drive to create and improve upon media in general can perhaps be attributed to historical context, including the socioeconomic climate. Consider the time at which the electric pen was invented and released for distribution. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was passed:

The last biracial U.S. Congress of the 19th century passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875. It protected all Americans, regardless of race, in their access to public accommodations and facilities such as restaurants, theaters, trains and other public transportation, and protected the right to serve on juries. However, it was not enforced, and the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1883 (, 2003).
The United States was in the midst of the Long Depression (1872-1879). In this socioeconomic context, what were the implications of an invention such as the electric pen hitting the market in the middle of an economic downturn and social upheaval? "If there is a prevailing mode in general circulation today, I think it is a tendency to naturalize or essentialize media—in short, to cede to them a history that is more powerfully theirs than ours" (Gitelman, 2006). In the grand scheme of the historical happenings of the era, how important was this device - the electric pen - or any device at the time? Prolific inventor that he was, what would the world look like today had the electric pen not ever been created? We can't possibly answer that question definitively because it was created, other inventions were spunoff from it, and we are currently looking at today's "new" media: a 3D printer/copier that uses materials to make everything from food to guns to prosthetics. How long before that media becomes mainstream and we take it for granted as well?

But, as Gitelman points out, media "... tend unthinkingly to be regarded as heading a certain 'coherent and directional' way along an inevitable path, a History, toward a specific and not-so-distant end." If history (or History) truly repeats itself, then it isn't so much about media itself but about the fickle nature of society and the perception of the medium in question. How consequential was the invention of the electric pen, the subsequent re-invention via mimeographs and xerography, and the most recent (I will avoid the term ultimate) iteration, the 3D printer? Again, we can't possibly know, but it was potentially crucial to the development of modern day marketing and business development. Indeed, an entire industry has been built upon that single technology, even resulting in a dilution of trademark (Xerox) with its ubiquitousness. Could the electric pen and its spawn be so tied to the economy? If it hadn't been Edison, would it have been someone else to introduce this idea of using an electric or battery-powered device to copy literature? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we can't know, but probably. Edison didn't invent in a vacuum; others were aware of what he was doing. So, too, are we unable to point to one particular medium that spurred economic development and the evolution of modern culture.

Though, as Gitelman notes, "Like old art, old media remain meaningful. Think of medieval manuscripts, eight-track tapes, and rotary phones, or semaphores, stereoscopes, and punchcard programming: only antiquarians use them, but they are all recognizable as media. Yet like old science, old media also seem unacceptably unreal. Neither silent film nor black-and-white television seems right anymore, except as a throwback. Like acoustic (nonelectronic) analog recordings, they just don’t do the job."


As evidenced in the information presented above, it is easy for one to see the impact that the electric pen not only had during its introduction in the 1870s, but also through time and into the present day. Although these new media were seen as new until they were replaced by newer versions of themselves, they were brought about by their time. Since these media had to compete with their time, there is evidence as to why there were seen as “old” and no longer mainstream, which leaves room for discussion for how our current media brought about by the electric pen will be viewed as they are phased out and the adjective of “new” will be replaced with “old.”


Antique copying machines (n.d.) Retrieved from

Birnbaum, N. (1953). Conflicting interpretations of the rise of capitalism: Marx and Weber. The British Journal of Sociology, 4(2), 125-141.

Burns, B. (2015). Edison’s electric pen: 1875: the beginning of office copying technology. Retrieved from

Cooper, J.E. (1996). Intermediaries and invention: Business agents and the Edison electric pen and duplicating press. Business and Economic History, 25, 130-142.

Electric Pen (2012). In P. Israel (Ed.) The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: New Beginnings, January 1885-December 1887 (Volume 8). Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved from

Gitelman, L. (2006). Introduction: Media as Historical Subjects. In Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture. 1-22. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hoffman, T. (2015). The many dimensions of 3D printing. PC Magazine, 91-100.

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PBS. org. (2013). American Experience: Reconstruction, The Second Civil War. Retrieved from

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Watson, B. (1998, August). A wizard’s scribe. Smithsonian Magazine.