In terms of tattoo machine history, we are greatly indebted towards the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the cornerstone with his excellent patent research and the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled through the years. The identical is applicable to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A large thanks arrives everyone who may have included with the pool of information.
I might personally love to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supply if you ask me, in addition to, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko with regard to their input. I might additionally want to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the elements of this article for a number 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 is really a shaky research subject likely to forever elude definitive documentation. Please remember, this piece is not 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, therefore the history can be more fully understood.
“The first electric tattoo machine was invented in The Big Apple 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 age.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. But it really falls short of the bigger picture. As we’re going to learn here, the tale of methods the electric tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. It offers a good number of 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 was born in New Haven, Connecticut to Irish immigrants Thomas O’Reilly and Mary Hurley. He first appears in Brooklyn City Directories in 1886, together with his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record as being a tattoo artist until 1888, by then he’d produced a name in 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 depending on 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 intended for making paper stencils. Its form and function caused it to be an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens within the 1870s that may have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. The truth is, so evident was the tattooing potential of his inventions, it had been recognized almost from the very beginning.
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 could possibly be turned 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 after an electric powered tattoo machine was envisioned, it absolutely was only an issue of time before one is made. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions at this time. Because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were dealing with tattoo needle cartridge this in the beginning. 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 absolutely was introduced no less than many years prior. The latter half of the 1880s seemed to be the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing as being a more modern phenomenon then and further reports show substantial progression from this time forward.
Accessibility was undoubtedly a significant factor. This era was marked with a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. By the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, as well as a greater array of electrically driven appliances became accessible to the general public. As advertised inside an 1887 promotional article for an electrical exhibition in New York City, an upward of 10,000 electric devices had been introduced considering that the last show in 1884, including from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for many different arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed inside an 1897 interview which 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 within a bunch,” technology was on the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan produced a sensation about 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 acquired electric tattooing in this particular period as well. During the entire 1880s, Williams performed on the United States dime show circuit at venues for example 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 approach to England, where he awed museum audiences by tattooing his wife, Madame Ondena, on stage using a “new method” he stated was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly newest York.” As 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 turn into a trend in America. In January of 1891 -6 months before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the newest York Dramatic Mirror printed these:
“What is announced as being the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man will be the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Whenever we could also take the New York 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.
The wording of O’Reilly’s patent application -which he had invented “new and useful Improvements in Tattooing-Machines” -suggests electric tattoo machines had previously been being used. Now you ask , ….. what sorts of machines were tattoo artists utilizing?
This can be maybe the biggest revelation. The Edison pen probably wasn’t the 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 called a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion utilized to impact gold in cavities. A reporter for the Omaha Herald wrote about this in June of 1890, describing it as a “…a little electric machine, which caused a little cable of woven wire to revolve something inside the manner of a drill which dentists use in excavating cavities in teeth…” Much like Edison’s stencil pen, various dental pluggers were invented inside the 1800s which can be thought to happen to be 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 very first electromagnetically operated dental plugger, and also in so doing, the 1st electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea was created within the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of any telegraph machine operational. His first 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 through the frame. Additional features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, along with a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders along with his invention. His goal was to create a device “manipulated as readily as being the usual hand tools,” aimed toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in with the shape of the frame, the load of your machine, and its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of the coils in terms of the frame, armature, and handle. At the same time, also, he greatly improved upon both the electro-magnet and armature.
Just like most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But because the first electrically operated handheld implement, it absolutely was a superb breakthrough -for a lot of fields. It was actually so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the best 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 with his fantastic ideas were introduced to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers as being 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,” in 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 (by using a spring coil in the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, because of the description in 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 a good idea. The engineering of these sorts of dental pluggers was most comparable to tattoo needle cartridge. That is why, they are actually those highly popular 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. As he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, does apply towards the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is required or can be used actuating a hammer.” A report on exhibits in the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine have been employed in dentistry, being a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, being 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 is definitely worth mentioning, since it’s been said 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 was influenced by Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences since the early 1870s. As noted in their 1874 pamphlet A Brief History in the Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had been on trial in dental practices for quite some time. 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 wide range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in the United Kingdom (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).