With regards to tattoo machine history, our company is greatly indebted for the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the cornerstone along with his excellent patent research and 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 big thank you arrives everyone who may have added to the pool of information.
I would personally like to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supplies if you ask me, along with, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for his or her input. I would additionally want to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the areas of this article for many 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 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, therefore the history might 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 in 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 story of how the electrical tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. It has quite a few twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) is definitely the usual character that comes to mind when talking about 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, in addition to 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 about the New York City Bowery because the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a few years later -in 1891 -he secured the 1st tattoo machine patent based upon 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 designed for making paper stencils. Its form and function made it an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens in the 1870s that might have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. In fact, so evident was the tattooing potential of his inventions, it was 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 towards the editor from the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent could possibly 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 had been only an issue of time before one was developed. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions at this time. Mainly because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were working together with tattoo needle cartridge this in early stages. Before the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing failed to get started with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was introduced at the very least many years prior. The latter one half of the 1880s might have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing being a more modern phenomenon then and extra reports show substantial progression from that point forward.
Accessibility was certainly a major factor. This era was marked by a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. With the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, plus a greater variety of electrically driven appliances became available to the general public. As advertised within an 1887 promotional article for the electrical exhibition in Ny City, an upward of ten thousand electric devices have been introduced considering that the last show in 1884, including from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for a variety of arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed inside 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 together with the traditional “needles inside 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 picked up electric tattooing in this period at the same time. During the entire 1880s, Williams performed on the usa dime show circuit at venues like the World’s Museum in Boston and Worth’s Museum in The Big Apple. 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 having a “new method” he said was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of the latest York.” While 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 have turn into a trend in America. In January of 1891 -6 months before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the latest York Dramatic Mirror printed the subsequent:
“What is announced as being the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man will be the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Whenever we may also go ahead and take Ny Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway on the list of dime show crowd. In March of 1891 -still months ahead of O’Reilly’s patent submission in July -the Herald reported that tattooed performers had become quite plentiful, due to introduction of electric tattoo machines.
Including the wording of O’Reilly’s patent application -that he had invented “new and useful Improvements in Tattooing-Machines” -suggests electric tattoo machines had already been utilized. Now you ask ….. what types of machines were tattoo artists dealing with?
This really is maybe the biggest revelation. The Edison pen probably wasn’t the first or only go-to device. O’Reilly’s first pre-patent machine had not been an Edison pen. It was actually 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 that Omaha Herald wrote about this in June of 1890, describing it as a “…a little electric machine, which caused a tiny cable of woven wire to revolve something from the method of a drill which dentists use within excavating cavities in teeth…” Just like Edison’s stencil pen, various dental pluggers were invented in the 1800s that are believed 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 first electromagnetically operated dental plugger, as well as in so doing, the initial electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came into this world inside the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of any telegraph machine functioning. His initial two patents were filed in 1871 (issued October 15, 1878 -US Patent 209,006) and also in 1873 (issued November 16, 1875 -US Patent 170,045). Like today’s tattoo machines, Bonwill’s devices operated by way of two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset from the frame. More features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, and a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders regarding his invention. His goal was to style a device “manipulated as readily as the usual hand tools,” geared toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in with the model of the frame, the extra weight of your machine, along with its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement from the coils in terms of the frame, armature, and handle. Along the way, 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 was actually a superb breakthrough -for several fields. It absolutely was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the highest honor in the 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 brought to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers as the first truly “practicable model”).
As outlined by 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 on earth, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, like the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (with a spring coil from the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, considering the description from the visible coils on O’Reilly’s machine, there’s little chance 20dexmpky was adapted from anything besides the Bonwill or Green model, or possibly a like machine. It only is sensible. The engineering of these sorts of dental pluggers was most similar to Round Liner HOLLOW. For that reason, they happen to be those highly desired by tattoo collectors. (See Kornberg School of Dentistry’s online database for instances of various dental pluggers).
Bonwill was fully aware his invention was transferable with other fields. While he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, does apply on the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is needed or can be used as actuating a hammer.” A report on exhibits with the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine was employed in dentistry, as a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, for an autographic pen.
Interestingly, years earlier inside 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 is 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 Edison stumbled on the idea for a handheld stencil pen while trying out telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible which he was relying on Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences considering that the early 1870s. As noted in their 1874 pamphlet A History in the Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had previously 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 work on their various handheld devices until July of 1875. (This became a range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in britain (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).