In relation to tattoo machine history, we have been greatly indebted on the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the basis together with his excellent patent research and also the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled throughout the years. Exactly the same pertains to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A major thank you is due everyone that has added to the pool of information.
I would personally personally want to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Equipment for me, along with, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for their input. I would additionally prefer to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the facets of this article for a number of years (See related blog here). Digging for information and connecting the dots was a painstaking endeavor. Their feedback helped immensely in formulating ideas and tying the pieces together.
Early tattoo machine history is actually a shaky research subject very likely to forever elude definitive documentation. Please bear in mind, this piece will not be meant to be conclusive or all-encompassing. There’s plenty left to flesh out. Hopefully, evidence presented here inspires others to delve deeper into research, hence the history can be more fully understood.
“The first electric tattoo machine was invented in Ny 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 right into a more modern day.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. But it really falls lacking the greater picture. As we’re intending to learn here, the history of how the electric tattoo machine came into existence isn’t that straightforward. It offers several twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) is definitely the usual character you think of when speaking of early tattoo machines. O’Reilly was created in New Haven, Connecticut to Irish immigrants Thomas O’Reilly and Mary Hurley. He first appears in Brooklyn City Directories in 1886, as well as his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record like a tattoo artist until 1888, by then he’d made a name on the New York Bowery since the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Only a few years later -in 1891 -he secured the very first tattoo machine patent based on Thomas Edison’s 1876 rotary operated stencil pen patent (technically a rotary-electromagnetic coil hybrid).
The Edison pen was really a handheld, reciprocating, puncturing device designed for making paper stencils. Its form and function managed to get an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens in the 1870s that may 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 at place, an anonymous contributor (alias “Phah Phrah Phresh”) wrote a letter for the editor in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent could possibly be turned into a tattooing machine with only a few 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 a power tattoo machine was envisioned, it absolutely was only a point of time before one was developed. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions yet. As it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were dealing with needle cartridge this in early stages. Up until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
With that being said, electric tattooing did not get started with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was actually introduced at the very least a long period prior. The second 1 / 2 of the 1880s could have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing like a more recent phenomenon then and additional reports show substantial progression from this time forward.
Accessibility was undoubtedly a significant factor. This period was marked by a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. By the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, and a greater variety of electrically driven appliances became accessible to the general public. As advertised inside an 1887 promotional article on an electrical exhibition in The Big Apple, an upward of 10,000 electric devices have been introduced ever since the last show in 1884, including anything from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for various arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed in 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 using the traditional “needles in a bunch,” technology was about the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan made a sensation about the dime show stage exhibiting their “electrically tattooed” bodies. Also, in 1890, “electrically tattooed” man, George Kelly (aka Karlavagn) took on the stage sporting the telltale lettering on his back “Tattooed by O’Reilly.”
Tattooed man and tattoo artist, “Professor” John Williams, had apparently gathered electric tattooing within this period also. Throughout the 1880s, Williams performed on america dime show circuit at venues including 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 strategy to England, where he awed museum audiences by tattooing his wife, Madame Ondena, on stage by using a “new method” he explained was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly newest York.” As he assured in 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 turn into a trend in the us. In January of 1891 -six months before O’Reilly requested his patent -the latest York Dramatic Mirror printed the subsequent:
“What is announced as being the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is definitely the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Once we also can consider the New York City Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway on the list of 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.
The wording of O’Reilly’s patent application -that he or she had invented “new and useful Improvements in Tattooing-Machines” -suggests electric tattoo machines had already been in use. Now you ask ….. what kinds of machines were tattoo artists utilizing?
This is maybe 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 had been a modified dental plugger (also referred to as a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion used to impact gold in cavities. A reporter for your Omaha Herald wrote about this in June of 1890, describing it as a “…a little electric machine, which caused a small cable of woven wire to revolve something inside the method of a drill which dentists utilize in excavating cavities in teeth…” Just like Edison’s stencil pen, a number of dental pluggers were invented in the 1800s that are thought to happen to be modified for tattooing. Several such dental pluggers are archived in present day tattoo collections.
An industrious dentist and inventor named William Gibson Arlington Bonwill (1833-1899) is credited with inventing the very first electromagnetically operated dental plugger, and then in so doing, the initial electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea was born 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) as well as in 1873 (issued November 16, 1875 -US Patent 170,045). Like today’s tattoo machines, Bonwill’s devices operated through two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset through the frame. Additional features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, and a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders regarding his invention. His goal have been to design a device “manipulated as readily as being the usual hand tools,” aimed toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in thinking about the shape of the frame, the load of the machine, and its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement in the coils in terms of the frame, armature, and handle. In the process, also, he greatly improved upon the two electro-magnet and armature.
Much like most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But as the first electrically operated handheld implement, it had been an exceptional breakthrough -for several fields. It had been so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the greatest honor of your Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around the same time frame as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines along with his ideas were introduced to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers because 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 your largest dental manufacturing company in the world, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, like the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (using a spring coil in the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, due to the description of the visible coils on O’Reilly’s machine, there’s little chance 20dexmpky was adapted from anything aside from the Bonwill or Green model, or even a like machine. It only is practical. The engineering of these types of dental pluggers was most comparable to tattoo needle cartridge. For this reason, they are the people highly preferred by tattoo collectors. (See Kornberg School of Dentistry’s online database for samples of various dental pluggers).
Bonwill was fully aware his invention was transferable to many other fields. Since he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, does apply to the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is essential or can be used for actuating a hammer.” A written report on exhibits on the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine was used in dentistry, as being a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, for an autographic pen.
Interestingly, years earlier within 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) -also a handheld device with vertically-positioned coils. Bonwill’s assertion may be worth mentioning, since it’s been claimed that Edison’s invention was the inspiration for Charlie Wagner’s 1904 tattoo machine patent (US Patent 768,413). Though it’s typically believed Edison stumbled about the idea to get a handheld stencil pen while tinkering with telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible that he or she was affected by Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences ever since the early 1870s. As noted in the 1874 pamphlet Historical Past in the Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had previously been on trial in dental practices for several years. While Edison, a former telegraph operator, was well-versed in electromagnetic technology, he and partner, Charles Batchelor, didn’t commence focus on their various handheld devices until July of 1875. (This is a multitude of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in the United Kingdom (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).