The new electric pen

Last month I joined a KickStarter for the 3Doodler, a cool pen that lets you write directly in the air (see below). It’s essentially a 3D printer head stuffed into a pen, which works by extruding a thin liquid string of heated plastic that quickly cools after it hits the air, letting you draw wireframe 3D shapes. No computer is needed, because you are the computer.

Today I got a notice that they are fully funded (for many times their original target), and that I could expect delivery in a few months. I am very excited. Yet all this time there’s been something familiar about this thing, and just last night I figured out what it is.

I realized it reminds me of Edison’s Electric Pen. Invented by Thomas Alva Edison back in 1875, this ingenious device used an electric motor on the pen to push a needle rapidly back and forth. As you wrote with it, you would make lots of little perforations into a sheet of paper. The paper could then be used as a stencil to run off hundreds of copies of your original drawing:

It was indeed an ingenious invention, which allowed people for the first time to make large numbers of copies of their writing. Enthusiastic letters of support were written by such illustrious personages as the Reverend Charles Dodgson.

Alas, after only three years the pen had lost its market. By 1878 another newfangled invention — the typewriter — had started to become the dominant means of creating stencils.

We can look at the bright side: Even if the 3Doodler ends up failing, it will most likely end up ushering in some other cool and inspiring technology.

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