The machine that’s mightier than Gordon Ramsay’s pen

The celebrity chef claimed in court that a signature was not his, but done by a ‘ghostwriting’ machine. With everyone from the Queen to Barack Obama now using them, how can you be sure who has signed what?

A shadowy piece of machinery has emerged at the centre of a court battle between Gordon Ramsay and his father-in-law. The celebrity chef was contesting his liability for the £640,000 rent due on a London pub, claiming he hadn’t signed the legal documents. Yet there was his signature. Ramsay claimed it had been forged, signed by a “ghostwriting machine” – something the judge had described as “obviously very useful” when it was revealed Ramsay’s office had used it to sign cookbooks, cards, merchandise, and at least 42 legal documents.

Such machines, now known as autopens, were first manufactured widely in the 1940s. Modern versions store copies of signatures on flash drives, but the mechanism is much the same – a metal arm grips a writing implement (any kind of pen) and robotically draws the signature. A piece in the Washington Post last year highlighted the secrecy surrounding them. “I’ve seen pens in a government office where the office next door doesn’t know they exist,” said Robert Deshazo III, whose family is in the autopen business.

In 2004, Donald Rumsfeld, then US defence secretary, was attacked for using one to sign condolence letters to the grieving families of killed soldiers (one father said Rumsfeld “had time for golf and the ranch, but not enough to sign a decent signature with a pen for his beloved hero soldiers”). The following year, George Bush clarified the legal standing of the machine to sign legislation. It was allowed, went the opinion, but he didn’t use it. However, Barack Obama has – in 2013, he “signed” the fiscal cliff bill while on holiday in Hawaii (NPR suggests this wasn’t his first time).

In the UK, the Queen and Prince Philip are said to be two of the biggest users of a ghostwriting machine (her press office was yet to reply at the time of writing). “Virtually everything [signed by the Queen] that comes out of the palace is signed using an autopen machine,” says Garry King, an autograph expert. He says, it’s “very difficult” to tell if something has been signed by autopen. It doesn’t simply look printed – a machine will leave authentic-looking groove marks on paper if a ballpoint pen has been used, for instance. A signature by a human hand will have variation in pressure or the width of the line, though good machines can go some way to replicating this. A bad machine may leave telltale dots on the page, or shaky writing.

“The only way you can be certain is by comparing it to another one,” says King. Autopen signatures will be identical, though even this isn’t foolproof as the machines can be tweaked on a regular basis so the signature appears to change.

Is it a bit of a cheat? “In the case of the Queen, she’s not trying to deceive anybody, she’s trying to satisfy a demand,” he says. “It wouldn’t be possible for her to sit down and sign everything she’s supposed to sign every day. So there is a good reason for it.” He is more sniffy about people who write to celebrities and public figures for an autograph and get an autopen version. “Generally speaking, an autopen signature is worthless.” Time for another look at your cookbooks signed by one Gordon Ramsay, then.

Powered by article was written by Emine Saner, for The Guardian on Wednesday 21st January 2015 18.15 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010