When it comes to tattoo machine history, we are greatly indebted on the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the foundation together with his excellent patent research as well as the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled through the years. The same applies to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A big many thanks is due everyone who has added to the pool of knowledge.
I would personally personally prefer to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supplies if you ask me, in addition to, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for his or her input. I might additionally want to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the aspects of this short 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 prone to forever elude definitive documentation. Please take into account, this piece is not meant to be conclusive or all-encompassing. There’s plenty left to flesh out. Hopefully, the evidence presented here inspires others to delve deeper into research, therefore the history could 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 to a more modern day.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. However it falls lacking the greater picture. As we’re planning to learn here, the history of methods the electrical tattoo machine came into existence isn’t that straightforward. It offers quite a few twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) will be the usual character that comes to mind when speaking of early tattoo machines. O’Reilly came into this world 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 about the New York Bowery because the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Only a few years later -in 1891 -he secured the very first tattoo machine patent based upon 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 performance made it 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. The truth is, so evident was the tattooing potential of his inventions, it absolutely 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 of your Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent might be transformed into a tattooing machine with just a couple of 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 title-changer. Logic follows that once an electrical tattoo machine was envisioned, it was actually only dependent on time before one was made. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions yet. Because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were dealing with tattoo needle cartridge this in early stages. Up until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing did not begin with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It had been introduced at the very least a few years prior. The latter 50 % of the 1880s may have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing as being a more modern phenomenon then and additional reports show substantial progression from that time forward.
Accessibility was certainly a serious factor. This era was marked by way of 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 selection of electrically driven appliances became open to most people. As advertised in a 1887 promotional article on an electrical exhibition in New York, an upward of 10,000 electric devices have been introduced ever since the last show in 1884, including everything from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for various arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed within 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 with the traditional “needles inside a bunch,” technology was about the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan created a sensation around 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 gathered electric tattooing in this particular period at the same time. Through the 1880s, Williams performed on the usa dime show circuit at venues such as the World’s Museum in Boston and Worth’s Museum in Ny. Sometime between December of 1889 and January of 1890, he made his method to England, where he awed museum audiences by tattooing his wife, Madame Ondena, on stage using a “new method” he said was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of the latest 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 have develop into a trend in the usa. In January of 1891 -6 months before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the newest York Dramatic Mirror printed the next:
“What is announced as the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man may be the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Once we could also go ahead and take The Big Apple Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway among the dime show crowd. In March of 1891 -still months just before O’Reilly’s patent submission in July -the Herald reported that tattooed performers had become quite plentiful, as a result of introduction of electric tattoo machines.
Even 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 previously been utilized. Now you ask ….. what kinds of machines were tattoo artists utilizing?
This is certainly 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 a modified dental plugger (also called a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion employed to impact gold in cavities. A reporter for that Omaha Herald wrote regarding it in June of 1890, describing it as a “…a little electric machine, which caused a small cable of woven wire to revolve something in the method of a drill which dentists utilize in excavating cavities in teeth…” Much like Edison’s stencil pen, a variety of dental pluggers were invented inside the 1800s which can be considered to have already 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 also in so doing, the first electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea was born inside the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of any telegraph machine in operation. 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 using two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset from your frame. More features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, and a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders regarding his invention. His goal ended up being to style a product “manipulated as readily because the usual hand tools,” geared toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in considering the model of the frame, the load of your machine, along with its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement from the coils in relation to the frame, armature, and handle. In the process, he also greatly improved upon the two electro-magnet and armature.
Just like most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But since the first electrically operated handheld implement, it absolutely was an outstanding breakthrough -for several fields. It was actually so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the very best honor in the Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around the same time as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines and his ideas were brought to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers as the first truly “practicable model”).
In accordance with 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 the largest dental manufacturing company on the planet, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, for example the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (with a spring coil inside 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 a like machine. It only makes sense. The engineering of these sorts of dental pluggers was most comparable to tattoo needle cartridge. Because of this, they are generally the people highly desired 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 with other fields. As he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, can be applied for the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is essential or can be used for actuating a hammer.” A written report on exhibits in the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine have been found in dentistry, like 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) -yet another handheld device with vertically-positioned coils. Bonwill’s assertion will be worth mentioning, since it’s been stated 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 in the idea for a handheld stencil pen while tinkering with telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible that 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 his 1874 pamphlet Historical Past from the Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had recently 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 an array of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in the uk (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).