by Mike on 5/1/2012

in Perpetual Beta : Release

[Note: this post first appeared as a June 8, 2004 entry at WOIFM.]

Gizmodo tells the tale of the Autopen, a “retro gadget” that uses mechanical arms to reproduce a given signature onto a sheet of paper, using a regular pen (although Sharpies work best).

The Autopen, as recently as 1996, was still in heavy use in the U.S. Senate. Congresscritters place a heavy emphasis on responding to constituent mail, apparently because their constituents, laboring under the illusion that their letter comes to the personal attention of their elected official.

It does not.

Each Congressional office has a staff of several people whose job is to receive and respond to constituent mail. On the House side, that staff might number just a handful. On the Senate side, where volumes of mail are much higher, mail operations might consume a dozen or more.

The reponses are usually form letters.

Dear Ms. Quimby,

Thank you for contacting my office about the CIA’s use of microwave radiation to detect anti-American attitudes in newborn children. I feel very strongly about this issue and will work during the 119th Congress to ensure adequate supervision of CIA mind-reading initiatives.


…and there it is, the kicker. John Q. Public, junior Senator from West Dakota, has signed this letter himself in flowing blue ink. The voters back home eat it up, and since the franking privilege makes it absolutely free to send mail on public business, it’s the best propaganda in terms of bang-to-buck ratio any public official could produce.

But that signature? It’s not his, anymore than the words are. On the House side, where volumes are lower, senior staff simply sign the boss’s name themselves. During my time in a Congressional office, I got pretty good at signing the name of a now-retired Illinois Congressman.

On the Senate side, the volume is just too high to sign by hand. Although the advent of cheap laser printing has probably changed this, as recently as 1996 almost every Senate office had an autopen. Every day, some lowly intern or staff assistant would take a stack of letters over to the autopen machine and grind away until the whole stack was signed.

Link via Boing Boing.

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