A few weeks ago, I was doing some research on the Autopen, a device invented in the 1940s (though its predecessor was created in 1803 by Thomas Jefferson) to automatically duplicate signatures using a real pen. During my reading, I found mention of this insane book, which I was lucky enough to get on Inter-Library Loan.
“The Robot That Helped To Make A President,” written in 1965, is intended for autograph collectors so they could more easily identify real John F. Kenney’s signatures and ones generated by the Autopen. The title alone is worth the price of admission, but I think is more than just camp. It sits historically right between the thoroughly mechanized but still mostly analog era and one where computers are everywhere and do basically everything. The Autopen isn’t just a frustration for autograph aficionados, it’s also a metaphor for the computer replacing something that seems like it should be entirely human: writing one’s name on a piece of paper.
While the language is a mix of 60s goof and a techno-hope (a “huge, faceless robot” which “signs a photograph for his master”), I find this book such a beautiful, physical manifestation of anxiety and intrigue about technology.
Most of the book is autograph collection minutiae, but if you stick it out to the end, you’re rewarded with a beautiful light-blue-colored overlay titled “Seven Robot Signatures” used to test autographs in the wild.