Sincerely Yours, This Machine Does Not Exist

The first rule of autopen is “don’t talk about autopen.”

By Buzz McClain

The first rule of autopen is “don’t talk about autopen.”

Photo by Jonathan Timmes

The autopen, developed 71 years ago in Northern Virginia, is useful to those who have necessity to sign thousands of documents in a timely manner. Politicians, celebrities, sports figures, astronauts and the occasional pontiff have been known, or not, to use such a device. We cannot say for certain because the folks at Sterling’s Automated Signature Technology won’t verify. When the recipient of the document in question discovers it was signed by machine and not by hand, even though the signature is rendered in convincing ballpoint or felt tip pen, the value of the dispatch diminishes, at least in their own minds. So autopen users don’t talk about autopen.

Automated Signature Technology assembles autopens—also called “ghostwriters”—in an industrial park in Sterling, not far from Route 28. The business was founded by Robert DeShazo, Jr., who worked at the Torpedo Factory when it made actual torpedoes. The government toolmaker acquired the rights to the 1915 patent and put the machines into production. His son, Lindsay, runs the business today. Some interesting facts about the machine include:

Photo by Jonathan Timmes

–The Model 50, formerly used by the Navy, opens like a piano so as to access the big, horseshoe-shaped “matrix” that holds the signature data in grooves like music on a phonograph album. The data is now stored on a smartcard, but thousands in use still use the matrix.

–The latest innovation is the scrawling of a realistic, personalized P.S. on letters using your handwriting. “That’s big,” Lindsay DeShazo says. In the works: an app for changing the message remotely, a blessing for those on the road in sales.

–One client uses DNA-enriched ink. The DNA comes from pulverized hair put into a felt tip pen. The client is an artist, and he uses the ink to authenticate his work. Feel free to speculate.

–An autopen has been used to sign everything from footballs to guitars to Easter eggs.

–Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to out himself as an autopen aficionado. Everyone knew Kennedy had one. LBJ made the cover of the National Enquirer in 1968 for his autopen. The headline called it, scandalously, “The Robot That Sits In for the President.”

–Last year CBS sent reporter Bill Plante to Sterling with a camera crew to do a profile of Automated Signature Technology on the 70th anniversary of the autopen. At the last minute the producers decided they needed a member of congress talking about their autopen or the show wouldn’t run. Recalling the first rule of autopen, the story remains unaired.

(July 2013)