The Robot Pen

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Publication Date: March 15, 2018
By In-house Staff
US Government employees operate a check-signing machine
US Government employees operate a check-signing machine. National Photo Company Collection at the Library of Congress.

The  Autopen, or Robot pen, is a machine used to duplicate signatures; unlike scanning them, an actual pen produces the signature with ink. The first president to use the autopen extensively was Thomas Jefferson. It was patented in the USA in 1803, and Jefferson wasted no time acquiring and using the machine. It’s worth noting that today’s autopens are different from the original ones used by Jefferson; in his day, it was known as a polygraph machine, and it would copy out entire letters while the person was writing. Eventually, they evolved to use a template, which was made by carving a channel into plastic (like a mould of the signature). A pen would then follow the channel, producing the signature. Today, of course, there is no longer a physical template, but it is done digitally.

Since Jefferson, various US presidents have made use of the autopen;  some were guarded about it while others were more open about its use. Whereas once the official White House position was to deny the existence or usage of the autopen, today its existence is more of an open secret.  Harry Truman was rumoured to make use of the device; Gerald Ford was open about his utilization of it, but it was Lyndon B. Johnson who blew the doors off the entire affair by allowing the device to be photographed in the White House, appearing on the cover of The National Enquirer with the article “The Robot That Sits in for the President.”

John F. Kennedy was so dependent on the autopen, that he became the subject of a book entitled The Robot That Helped to Make a President. In 1965, at the time of its writing, the author claimed that Kennedy’s reliance on the autopen rendered his authentic signature the rarest of all presidential autographs. Though this claim has not held up over time, and Kennedy actually used the autopen less as president, it would seem that Kennedy’s extensive reliance on the device ushered in a new era of technology in the White House, resulting in his successor sharing this open secret with the public.

The ramifications of the growing acceptance of the autopen have ripple effects that impact not only the collecting world, but it has also been the subject of controversy regarding the very constitutionality of the use of the autopen in signing a bill into law. In 2005, George W. Bush was the first president to enquire with the Department of Justice if it was constitutional for the president to sign a bill using the autopen. Though he received the dispensation, he didn’t actually use the autopen, nor did he have the bill flown to him by courier, preferring instead, in one notable case, to rush from Texas to Washington to sign the controversial Terri Schiavo bill. The Palm Sunday Compromise, as it was colloquially known, allowed the federal court to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, on life support, who was caught in a tug of war between her husband, who wished to remove the feeding tube, and her parents who contested the decision. Likely, because of the life-and-death nature of the bill, Bush opted to forgo the dispensation.

In May 2011, while attending the G8 summit in France, Barack Obama became the first president to use the autopen in order to sign the expiring Patriot act. In November of that year, he signed an appropriations bill with the autopen from Indonesia, and in 2013, Obama used the autopen yet again from Hawaii in order to meet the deadline for signing the fiscal cliff bill into law several time zones over in Washington, D.C. Though there were rumblings from the Republican camp, the constitutional right of the president to sign a bill with the autopen has neither been challenged nor tested in court. The constitutionality of a proxy signature has most certainly been challenged, with some legal experts asserting that the problem is not the use of a proxy, but that the principal (in this case, the president) and the proxy (the autopen) are not together at the time of signing.

The three hundred-fifty-year-old proxy law, designed to mitigate fraud or undue influence, has surprising relevance to this new technology. The presidential use of the autopen, or new technology, then, is not only an esoteric interest of collectors, but has very real applications and ramifications that impact the very notion of a well-ordered government.

Further Reading:

  • If you would like to read Hamilton’s book The Robot That Helped Make a President, you can find it here.
  • Terry Turnipseed’s analysis of why the autopen is unconstitutional because of proxy laws appeared in the Florida Journal of Technology Law and Policy in 2012. It is available for download here.