A Magical Electrical Pen-based Device Invented in the 1800's

(From the March 23rd SitePoint Design Newsletter)

On April 5th it will be five years since the arrival of the iPad – it’s fair to say the first truly successful consumer tablet.

But there were many important precursor devices along the way. You’re no doubt already aware of the Palm Pilot and even Apple’s own Newton, but today I wanted to pay tribute to a guy that started working on this non-keyboard-centric problem much, much earlier.

This is Elisha Gray and though he may look like Kenny Rogers cosplaying Sherlock Holmes, he invented a pen-based electrical communication system in 1888.

That’s right, 1888.

Elisha is actually best known for competing with Alexander Graham Bell to develop the first working telephone. The man was a true electrical engineering giant at a time when gas lighting was still considered ‘high tech’.

Among his many patented inventions is a device called the ‘telautograph’.

At a time before most cities had electricity, Gray built a device that could take any pen input – writing, drawings or formulas – and reproduce the original artwork in real-time hundreds of miles away.

Gray wrote: “The artist of your newspaper can, by this device, telegraph his pictures of a railway wreck or other occurrences just as a reporter telegraphs his description in words..”

Was it a tablet as we understand the term today?

Certainly not, but it was the first user interface to accept the full range of inputs the human hand is capable of – architectural drawings, scientific formulas, maps, sketches and other media not suited to keyboards.

That was crazy smart.

So what happened to the telautograph?

Gray set up a corporation to develop and market the invention and it was very successful. Banks used the telautograph to transfer signatures between branches, while hospitals used it to transfer patient records. Train networks even relayed timetable updates via telautograph.

Though they were in widespread use right up until the 1960’s, today the telautograph is just another lost and forgotten technology, and you’re unlikely to ever see one in action.

That is,… unless you have a taste for schlocky 1950’s sci-fi.

In the movie ‘Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’ (yes, it’s as bad as it sounds) you can watch as the heroes use a telautograph to decode evil alien transmissions.

I’m guessing that’s one use case that Elisha didn’t foresee.

Eventually Xerox acquired the rights to the telautograph, retiring it to their vast patent portfolio.

But let takes nothing away from the amazing vision of its creator.

Elisha Gray, we salute you!


Why would Xerox acquire rights to an expired patent?
Publication number US494562 A
Publication date Apr 4, 1893
Filing date Jul 16, 1887
Inventors Elisha Gray

As best I know the patent expired 20 years after the filing date.

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WOW, I am blown away. I would be curious to know why this technology just disappeared and then sunk into oblivion. The application for newspaper illustrators at the time is genius. Thanks for this article.


He was ahead of his time. It occurs a lot in our human civilization, adicted to irrelevance.

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My guess would be that maybe photocopying and fax start to take on some of the roles that the telautograph was used for. As far as we can tell, a telautograph produces higher fidelity work, but maybe a fax gives you more flexibility, transmitting typewritten documents along with hand-drawn linework. Even if the fax result was lower quality and blockier, perhaps it was a case of ‘good enough’?

Also I have no idea what these things cost, but I suspect they weren’t cheap.

Can’t imaging how you dig all this stuff up, Alex, but always fascinating! It’s amazing how people come up with ideas before their time has really come. I always think of Leonardo, envisaging helicopters, submarines etc. At least the telautograph actually worked in its time and got some use.

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