Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

The electric pen was driven by a small, but nonetheless cumbersome bipolar electric motor wired up to a wet cell battery. Tipped with a steel needle stylus, the pen would be applied by hand to telegraph-type paper specially prepared with paraffin wax, making thousands of perforations for each letter of the stencil. The wax paper would then be placed in a frame and rolled with ink, creating a copy.

When it was first offered for sale in 1876, Edison claimed that his stencil was so refined that 5000 copies could be produced from one original. Indeed the pen was judged a commercial success, with an estimated 60,000 distributed worldwide before Ohio-born Edison turned his mind to other projects and sold his patent to A.B. Dick of Chicago. While the pen was arguably more effective than carbon-paper and the bookpress, it was primarily aimed at the commercial market where it was eventually replaced by the typewriter.

Most would simply have been thrown away, and the number known to exist today is probably in the hundreds rather than the thousands. The example illustrated right, was offered by Skinners at a science and technology sale in Boston, Massachusetts on March 6, where it sold to a European collector at $23,000 (£14,200).