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.
Autopen use hit the headlines a few times in the last few years, first when it was revealed that Donald Rumsfield was using an Autopen to sign letters of condolence to the families of U.S. troops killed in action, and more recently when it was revealed that President Obama used one to sign a bill into law.
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, but given the negative public reaction to the news stories mentioned above it's obvious that most users will not advertize the fact that they are using an Autopen machine.
The most common type of autopen machine used by NASA in the early years was the Autopen Model 80, built by the Damilic Corporation or Rockville, Md.
The machine (right) resembles 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 is created by the Autopen company from a copy of the signee's real autograph.
The template itself takes the form of a large Plexiglas spiral with indentations in the top surface which is loaded into the machine onto a turntable situated under the desk top.
A pen, pencil or marker is inserted at the end of the mechanical arm and letters, photographs, certificates or even books can then be placed under the pen and the signature will be drawn out on the item at the press of a button. Versions even exist to sign on oddly-shaped surfaces such as baseballs or bats.
The Model 80 Autopen machine has 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 can 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 may become a bit 'sloppy' (showing the shaky lines mentioned in section 2.3).
Templates can 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.
Rather worryingly for future collectors enhanced versions of the Autopen machine are being developed which aim be able to mimic the actual handwriting style of the celebrity (including some 'natural' variation) in order to create 'handwritten' and signed letters at will.
For now, however, the machines do not write in the same way as a human and luckily this allows us to spot autopenned signatures in many cases, as the following pages will attempt to explain.