Thursday, January 17, 2013

Autopen

This is a neat article on the history and debate surrounding the presidential use of the autopen.  President Obama recently used it to sign the fiscal cliff deal. 

Here is some of the history behind its usage:
Harry Truman was the first President to use one in office and Kennedy allegedly made substantial use of the device. However, the White House autopen was a closely guarded secret until Gerald Ford’s administration publicly acknowledged its use. Traditionally, the autopen has been reserved for personal correspondence and documents. More recently though, it has taken on a higher profile role in the White House. Barack Obama was the first American President to use the autopen to sign a bill into law, which he first did on May 26, 2011 when he authorized an extension of the Patriot Act from France. And now he’s used it again to approve the fiscal cliff deal from more than 4,800 miles away and, in so doing, has returned the autopen to the national spotlight.

Though the autopen wasn’t used in the White House until the 1950s, the history of the automated autograph dates back much further. A precursor of sorts to the autopen, the polygraph, was first patented in 1803 by John Isaac Hawkins and, within a year, was being used by noted early adopter Thomas Jefferson. Known formally as the “Hawkins & Peale’s Patent Polygraph No. 57,” this early copy device was used by Jefferson to make single reproductions of documents as he was writing them. Though the device’s inventor referred to the copy machine as a “polygraph,” today it would be more properly called a pantograph – a tool traditionally used by draftsmen and scientists to reduce and enlarge drawings. According to the OED, it wasn’t until 1871 that the word “polygraph” gained its modern definition: a machine that detects physiological changes and is often used as a lie detector. Prior to that date, and for some years after, it was used to refer to early copying devices.

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