When it comes to tattoo machine history, our company is greatly indebted towards the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the cornerstone together with his excellent patent research along with the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled throughout the years. The same relates to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A major thanks a lot is due everyone who has put into the pool of information.
I would personally love to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supply if you ask me, and also, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for his or her input. I would personally additionally like to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the areas of this post for a variety of years (See related blog here). Digging for information and connecting the dots was really a painstaking endeavor. Their feedback helped immensely in formulating ideas and tying the pieces together.
Early tattoo machine history can be a shaky research subject prone to forever elude definitive documentation. Please remember, this piece is not really intended to be conclusive or all-encompassing. There’s plenty left to flesh out. Hopefully, evidence presented here inspires others to delve deeper into research, and so the history can be more fully understood.
“The first electric tattoo machine was invented in New York City by Samuel F. O’Reilly, and patented December 8, 1891 (US Patent 464, 801). Adapted from Thomas Edison’s 1876 rotary operated stencil pen (US Patent 180,857), this machine revolutionized the trade of tattooing, bringing it into a more modern day.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. But it falls short of the larger picture. As we’re about to learn here, the storyline of methods the electric tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. It offers quite a few twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) is the usual character that comes to mind when speaking of early tattoo machines. O’Reilly came to be in New Haven, Connecticut to Irish immigrants Thomas O’Reilly and Mary Hurley. He first appears in Brooklyn City Directories in 1886, along with his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record as a tattoo artist until 1888, at that time he’d created a name on the New York City Bowery since the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Only a few years later -in 1891 -he secured the initial tattoo machine patent according to Thomas Edison’s 1876 rotary operated stencil pen patent (technically a rotary-electromagnetic coil hybrid).
The Edison pen had been a handheld, reciprocating, puncturing device created for making paper stencils. Its form and performance caused it to be an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens inside the 1870s that might have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. Actually, so evident was the tattooing potential of his inventions, it was actually recognized almost right from the start.
In 1878, nearly thirteen years before O’Reilly’s patent is in place, an anonymous contributor (alias “Phah Phrah Phresh”) wrote a letter on the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent may be transformed into a tattooing machine with just a couple minor adjustments. He (or she) dubbed this conceptual machine the “teletattoograph.”
Were tattooers using electric tattoo machines by 1878 then? The Brooklyn Eagle letter certainly seems a game-changer. Logic follows that once an electric powered tattoo machine was envisioned, it absolutely was only a point of time before one was made. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions yet. Because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were working together with tattoo needle cartridge this in the beginning. Till the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing failed to begin with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was actually introduced a minimum of a long period prior. The latter 50 % of the 1880s may have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing like a more recent phenomenon then and extra reports show substantial progression from this time forward.
Accessibility was without doubt a significant factor. This era was marked from a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. By the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, plus a greater selection of electrically driven appliances became available to the general public. As advertised in a 1887 promotional article for the electrical exhibition in New York, an upward of 10,000 electric devices have been introduced ever since the last show in 1884, including from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for a number of arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed within an 1897 interview that he developed his first machine right when electrical gadgets came into general use. Though an 1888 New Rochelle Pioneer newspaper article described him tattooing with all the traditional “needles within a bunch,” technology was on the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan crafted a sensation on the dime show stage exhibiting their “electrically tattooed” bodies. Also, in 1890, “electrically tattooed” man, George Kelly (aka Karlavagn) took towards the stage sporting the telltale lettering on his back “Tattooed by O’Reilly.”
Tattooed man and tattoo artist, “Professor” John Williams, had apparently picked up electric tattooing within this period too. Through the 1880s, Williams performed on the usa dime show circuit at venues like the World’s Museum in Boston and Worth’s Museum in New York City. Sometime between December of 1889 and January of 1890, he made his way to England, where he awed museum audiences by tattooing his wife, Madame Ondena, on stage with a “new method” he said was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of New York.” Since he assured within a January 11, 1890 London Era advertisement, his act was “startling, astonishing, interesting, and novel, and lively” and “a perfectly safe and painless performance.”
Within another year’s time, electrically tattooed attractions seem to have become a trend in the usa. In January of 1891 -six months before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the newest York Dramatic Mirror printed these:
“What is announced because the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man will be the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Once we could also use the Ny Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway among the dime show crowd. In March of 1891 -still months prior to O’Reilly’s patent submission in July -the Herald reported that tattooed performers had become quite plentiful, due to the introduction of electric tattoo machines.
Even wording of O’Reilly’s patent application -he had invented “new and useful Improvements in Tattooing-Machines” -suggests electric tattoo machines had previously been used. Now you ask ….. what types of machines were tattoo artists dealing with?
This really is possibly the biggest revelation. The Edison pen probably wasn’t the very first or only go-to device. O’Reilly’s first pre-patent machine was not an Edison pen. It absolutely was a modified dental plugger (also known as a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion utilized to impact gold in cavities. A reporter for your Omaha Herald wrote regarding this in June of 1890, describing it as being “…a little electric machine, which caused a compact cable of woven wire to revolve something from the method of a drill which dentists utilization in excavating cavities in teeth…” As with Edison’s stencil pen, a variety of dental pluggers were invented in the 1800s that are considered to have been modified for tattooing. Several such dental pluggers are archived in current day tattoo collections.
An industrious dentist and inventor named William Gibson Arlington Bonwill (1833-1899) is credited with inventing the 1st electromagnetically operated dental plugger, and in so doing, the first electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea was created inside the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of your telegraph machine in operation. His initial two patents were filed in 1871 (issued October 15, 1878 -US Patent 209,006) and in 1873 (issued November 16, 1875 -US Patent 170,045). Like today’s tattoo machines, Bonwill’s devices operated by means of two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset in the frame. Extra features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, plus a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders together with his invention. His goal have been to create a product “manipulated as readily since the usual hand tools,” geared toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in considering the form of the frame, the extra weight of your machine, and its particular mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of the coils in relation to the frame, armature, and handle. In the process, he also greatly improved upon the two electro-magnet and armature.
As with most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But as being the first electrically operated handheld implement, it was actually a superb breakthrough -for many fields. It was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the very best honor of your Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around the same time as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines along with his ideas were unveiled in the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers since the first truly “practicable model”).
Based on dental journals, the S.S. White Dental Manufacturing Company began producing and marketing Bonwill’s device, “The Bonwill Electro-magnetic Mallet -With Improvements by Dr. Marshall H. Webb,” within the mid-1870s to mid-1880s period. S.S. White, then this largest dental manufacturing company on earth, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, for example the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (by using a spring coil within the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, because of the description of the visible coils on O’Reilly’s machine, there’s little chance 20dexmpky was adapted from anything apart from the Bonwill or Green model, or even a like machine. It only makes sense. The engineering of these kinds of dental pluggers was most comparable to needle cartridge. For this reason, they are the people highly desired by tattoo collectors. (See Kornberg School of Dentistry’s online database for types of various dental pluggers).
Bonwill was fully aware his invention was transferable for some other fields. While he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, can be applied towards the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is required or can be used for actuating a hammer.” A report on exhibits at the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine have been employed in dentistry, like a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, as an autographic pen.
Interestingly, years earlier in an 1878 interview, Bonwill claimed that Thomas Edison borrowed the principles of his dental plugger when developing the 1877 electromagnetic stencil pen (US Patent 196,747) -additionally a handheld device with vertically-positioned coils. Bonwill’s assertion will be worth mentioning, since it’s been mentioned that Edison’s invention was the inspiration for Charlie Wagner’s 1904 tattoo machine patent (US Patent 768,413). Though it’s typically believed that Edison stumbled in the idea for any handheld stencil pen while tinkering with telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible that he or she was relying on Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences since the early 1870s. As noted in their 1874 pamphlet A History of your Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had already been on trial in dental practices for quite a while. While Edison, a former telegraph operator, was well-versed in electromagnetic technology, he and partner, Charles Batchelor, didn’t commence work with their various handheld devices until July of 1875. (This is an array of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in the uk (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).