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This morning the news broke that President Obama signed the Patriot Act extension from France via autopen. And you could almost hear thousands of Americans asking in unison: What is an autopen? Well, it's a device that signs a signature. They're often used by rock stars or sports heroes and, yes, occasionally by the presidents, usually for letters.

As NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, this is the first time that we know of that an autopen has signed a bill into law.

ANDREA SEABROOK: The first autopen was patented in 1803 by a man named John Isaac Hawkins. The polygraph, as it was called, was immediately pounced on by America's original early adopter of cutting edge technology, Thomas Jefferson.

Ms. SUSAN STEIN (Senior Curator, Monticello): He wrote with one pen and it was hooked to another pen, and the other one made a copy on the second piece of paper.

SEABROOK: Susan Stein is the senior curator of Monticello, Jefferson's Virginia plantation. The mansion is full of high-tech machines: automatic doors, a dumbwaiter in the dining room to pluck bottles of wine from the cellar, and then there's the double clock - one facing the hall...

Ms. STEIN: And outside, there is another face that shows the hours, and that was hooked to a Chinese gong on the roof.

SEABROOK: Copying and archiving his work was immensely important to Jefferson, says Stein, and his autopen is on display at Monticello. Stein says he called it, quote, "the finest invention of the present age."

Modern autopens can write by themselves. And this morning was not the first time a president has considered using one to sign a bill, says former Deputy Attorney General Howard Nielson.

Mr. HOWARD NIELSON (Former Deputy Attorney General): This is an issue that in the past had come up a couple of times. It had always come up in kind of urgent circumstances.

SEABROOK: President Clinton was in Turkey when a bill funding the government had to be signed. And President Reagan was in similar circumstances while in China. In both cases, the Justice Department decided it was safer to fly the bill halfway around the world rather than sign it with an autopen. After all, the Constitution says, quote, "if he approves, he shall sign it."

That's why Congressman Tom Graves of Georgia is questioning, today, whether President Obama's autopen signature on the Patriot Act extension is constitutionally sound. But in 2005, President George W. Bush's Office of Legal Counsel considered the question and issued a decision, written by Howard Nielson.

It's 29 pages long, but it essentially says, what matters is the president's decision to approve a bill, not the mechanics of how it's signed. After all, says Nielson, the Constitution also says if the president is going to veto a bill, quote, "he shall return it."

Mr. NEILSEN: You know, it's never been understood that he actually has to physically walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and hand it to Congress himself.

Professor JAY WEXLER (Boston University School of Law): Excuse me. Excuse me. Hi, I have this bill. I must return.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WEXLER: Does anybody know where Congress is?

SEABROOK: Jay Wexler, a law professor at Boston University, loves this stuff. He's writing a book about odd clauses in the Constitution. Only in Washington, he says, could such minutia cause such a kerfuffle.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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