Patriot Act signed by President Autopen

Invented in the early 19th century, the autopen signs its first bill into law.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
2 min read
The Ghostwriter autopen is used by government officials. Automated Signature Technology

If you're not a fan of the Patriot Act, you may not appreciate the fact that it was extended for four more years by a machine.

President Obama used an autopen to renew the controversial legislation on Thursday, raising some eyebrows with the mechanical surrogate.

Obama was in France when he authorized the signing just before a midnight expiration deadline. It followed a House vote of 250-153.

First developed 200 years ago by British inventor John Isaac Hawkins, autopens are machines that trace engraved signatures and are often used to sign cards and letters sent by the White House. But last week's signature seems to be the first use of the device to sign something into law.

The decision to use the autopen was apparently based on a 2005 Justice Department memo that concluded "the president need not personally perform the physical act of affixing his signature to a bill to sign it."

Some are speculating that using an autopen could spark challenges under Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution, which states: "Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it..."

Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) has questioned whether Obama was presented with the legislation before he had the machine sign it and whether the signing was constitutional. He asked for a "detailed, written explanation" of the legitimacy of using an autopen.

"Consider the dangerous precedent this sets," Graves said in a statement. "Any number of circumstances could arise in the future where the public could question whether or not the president authorized the use of an autopen."

Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of autopens. He used Hawkins' letter-copying "polygraph" so often that he admitted he couldn't live without it.

I wonder what he would have thought of this kerfuffle.