I've been hearing the term 'autopen' a lot lately, both in reference to the US president's signature and to collectible autographs, so it made me a little curious about this mysterious device.
Honestly, I was picturing a pen that you held in your hand while it moved on its own across the page, sort of like a Ouija board planchette. Turns out, that's nothing like the real deal.
An autopen device is a machine with mechanical arms that holds a pen in an upright position. Your signature is encoded onto a plastic card which you insert into the machine. Place a piece of paper, photo, poster, etc. under the pen, start the machine and it will make an amazingly accurate copy of your signature.
The really cool thing is I talked to Bob at the Damilic Corp., one of the top makers of autopen machines, and he said just about any type of writing instrument can be used in the machine: "It could do a crayon or a pencil if you wanted to," he said.
It will even accept fountain pens. In fact, he said that years ago, the company gave away a Sheaffer White Dot fountain pen with each machine purchased. However, certain models won't accept particularly thick fountain pens, such as some Montblancs, he said.
As you probably heard, President Obama used an autopen last month to sign the 'fiscal cliff' legislation because he was in Hawaii when the bill needed his signature. Former president George W. Bush also reportedly used one that held a Sharpie. Apparently, autopens are Constitutionally legal.
Autopen machines are used by political figures, celebrities and direct mail marketers to add a bit of personalization to an item without actually having to sit and sign thousands and thousands of pieces of correspondence. (Autopen makers are hush-hush about who buys their machines, which can cost up to US$10,000).
While it's OK for the President to sign legislation using an autopen, it can be a real pitfall for autograph collectors. A real signature can be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. But an autopen sig? Basically worthless.
But you can bet if I ever got rich and famous, I'd want one of these. They're too cool not to.