The Autopen machine is a mechanical device used to automatically recreate genuine-looking signatures of a given person. These machines were first developed around the beginning of the 20th century but only became widely used in the last 60 years or so.
Although most people are unaware of their existence, Autopen machines are widely used by government institutions, businesses and celebrities. Certainly all U.S. presidents since Eisenhower have used them at one time or another (JFK was one of the first big users). In the context of this site obviously the most important users are the NASA astronauts, all of whom were (and still are) given access to these machines and encouraged to use them.
The use of Autopens machines is generally justified by the fact that they allow the signee to spend their time on their job rather than signing autographs or routine documents. In the case of NASA there was no way that the Apollo astronauts could have routinely signed all autograph requests and still done their jobs so NASA had to choose between refusing all requests or sending out Autopenned signatures.
Choosing the latter option probably made a lot of people happy at the time as the vast majority of recipients would have been unaware that the signatures were not genuine. Even some astronauts unknowingly ended up with Autopen signatures of their fellow astronauts in their own personal collections.
The most common type of autopen machine used by NASA in the early years was the Autopen Model 80, built by the Damilic Corporation of Rockville, Md.
The machine (right) resembled a small drafting table, with a mechanical writing arm on one side and an open area beside it for stacking signed and unsigned documents.
An Autopen machine works from a template (or signature matrix) which was created by the Autopen company from a copy of the signee's real autograph.
While modern Autopen machines work from digital patterns, the Apollo-era Autopen templates took the form of a large Plexiglas spiral with indentations in the top surface which was loaded into the machine onto a turntable situated under the desk top, as shown in the photo below.
A pen, pencil or marker was inserted at the end of the mechanical arm and letters, photographs, certificates or even books caould then be placed under the pen and the signature would be drawn out on the item at the press of a button.
The Model 80 Autopen machine had a writing area roughly 3" across by 1" high, so a template could incorportate short phrases (e.g. "Best Wishes") or symbols (e.g. the Mercury sigma 7 symbol) alongside the actual signature.
Apparently a skilled operator could turn out thousands of signed items a day if necessary using the machine, although it seems that if run at too high a speed the signatures could become a bit 'sloppy' (showing the shaky lines mentioned in section 2.3).
Templates could be swapped in and out of the machine easily, allowing a single machine to produce the signatures of multiple persons (e.g. an Apollo crew) or to produce varying versions of the same signature.
Future versions of these machines may be produced which mimic the actual handwriting style of a celebrity (including some 'natural' variation) in order to create 'handwritten' and signed letters at will, but luckily for us the Apollo-era machines, while impressive, did not write in quite the same way as a human.
Combined with the fact that only a limited number of fixed patterns were used by each astronaut, this allows us to spot Autopenned signatures in many cases as the following pages will attempt to explain.