What Is an Autopen?

Mary McMahon

An autopen is a device that reproduces signatures. It allows for automatic signing of documents, in settings where an autopen is deemed legally valid and appropriate; some uses have met with legal challenges from parties concerned about the technicalities of signatures. These devices can be seen in use in a variety of settings, particularly government offices, where it may be necessary to sign documents, but the sheer volume of documents awaiting signature could tie an official up for most of the workday. They also have a long history, dating back to various attempts in the early 20th century to build an automatic signature machine.

Woman holding a disc
Woman holding a disc

The autopen records a signature and replicates it, and is also capable of replicating other handwriting as necessary. A common use for this device is in the signing of government checks, which may need to be endorsed by an official party who cannot physically sign all the checks. Instead, government personnel operate an autopen to sign the checks, after receiving approval from the official to do so.

This device can also be used for correspondence, autographs, and other activities. In some cases, it has been used to sign bills into law; President Barack Obama made history in the United States in 2011 by using an autopen to sign a bill during a trip in France, breaking with a tradition that required staff members to travel to the president to get a signature. Operators may be able to adjust the device to change the size of the signature, and can also change inks for different applications.

Supporters of the autopen propose that it creates a happy medium between physically signing a document and impersonal rubber stamping, typed signatures or the use of graphics to represent a signature. Critics believe the autopen may not meet legal standards for signatures. There is also the potential risk that unauthorized personnel could access the device and use it to endorse documentation illegally. While the deception might eventually be uncovered, untangling it could require time and energy.

The cost of an autopen machine can vary, depending on size and features. Some companies rent them out for special applications, like authors who want to bulk sign a number of first editions of a book. Rental can be an option for situations where people need to generate large numbers of signatures, but do not want to buy a machine. Publishing houses and similar facilities may also maintain an automatic signing device for the use of their members and clients.

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