While serving as the 3rd president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson discovered a piece of technology that he could simply not live without. And no, it wasn't this thoroughly gonzo precursor to the home gym.
It was the polygraph: a machine that made direct copies of handwritten letters. The user would write a version on one side of the machine, and by mechanical action, the words would be instantly facsimiled on the other. Being the technophile that he was, Thomas Jefferson purchased two: one for the White House, one for Monticello.
In 1809, he wrote to the portrait artist Charles Wilson Peale raving that "the use of the polygraph has spoiled me for the old copying press the copies of which are hardly ever legible. . . . I could not, now therefore, live without the Polygraph."
As it turns out, neither can modern-day presidents.
Yesterday, the president was in Hawaii, rejoining his family on vacation. The recently passed fiscal-cliff deal was in Washington. How could the all important-presidential signature be affixed to the bill to make it law? The solution: Obama signed it via a robot, the autopen, a technological great, great grandchild of the machine Jefferson so loved.
Although the White House won't tell you how it works, the device essentially makes a copy of the president's pen strokes and saves them in the system's memory for future facsimile. Typically, any pen or pencil can be loaded into the machine. It has been reported that George W. Bush prefered Sharpies.