In relation to tattoo machine history, we are greatly indebted to the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the basis with his excellent patent research as well as the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled over time. Exactly the same is applicable to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A large thank you is due everyone who may have added to the pool of information.
I would personally personally like to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supply to me, along with, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for input. I would additionally want to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the facets of this short article for a number of years (See related blog here). Digging for information and connecting the dots was actually 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 more likely to forever elude definitive documentation. Please keep 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, and so the history can be more fully understood.
“The first electric tattoo machine was invented in New York 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. But it falls short of the larger picture. As we’re planning to learn here, the tale of methods the electric tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. It offers several twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) is definitely 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, in addition to his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record as being a tattoo artist until 1888, at that time he’d crafted a name about the New York City Bowery because the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a couple of 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 intended for making paper stencils. Its form and function made it an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens from the 1870s that could have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. In reality, so evident was the tattooing potential of his inventions, it was actually recognized almost from the very beginning.
In 1878, nearly thirteen years before O’Reilly’s patent was in place, an anonymous contributor (alias “Phah Phrah Phresh”) wrote a letter for 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 when a power tattoo machine was envisioned, it absolutely was only an issue of time before one is made. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions yet. Because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were utilizing Round Liner HOLLOW this in the beginning. Up until 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 introduced at least several years prior. The second 50 % of the 1880s may have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing as being a more recent phenomenon then and other reports show substantial progression from that point forward.
Accessibility was certainly a serious factor. This period was marked from a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. With the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, and a greater selection of electrically driven appliances became open to the public. As advertised in an 1887 promotional article for the electrical exhibition in New York City, an upward of ten thousand electric devices had been introduced considering that the last show in 1884, including anything from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for many different arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed in 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 together with the traditional “needles in a bunch,” technology was in the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan made 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 acquired electric tattooing within this period as well. Through the entire 1880s, Williams performed on the United States 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 way to England, where he awed museum audiences by tattooing his wife, Madame Ondena, on stage by using a “new method” he said was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly newest 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 have turn into a trend in the usa. In January of 1891 -half a year before O’Reilly requested his patent -the newest York Dramatic Mirror printed the subsequent:
“What is announced because the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Once we may also use the The Big Apple Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway amongst 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, due to 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 recently been in use. Now you ask ….. what sorts of machines were tattoo artists dealing with?
This can be 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 was a modified dental plugger (also referred to as a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion utilized to impact gold in cavities. A reporter to the Omaha Herald wrote regarding this in June of 1890, describing it as a “…a little electric machine, which caused a tiny cable of woven wire to revolve something within the manner of a drill which dentists use in excavating cavities in teeth…” As with Edison’s stencil pen, a number of dental pluggers were invented within the 1800s that are considered to have already been modified for tattooing. Several such dental pluggers are archived in contemporary 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 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 first couple of patents were filed in 1871 (issued October 15, 1878 -US Patent 209,006) and then 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 from your frame. Extra features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, as well as a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders regarding his invention. His goal ended up being to style a device “manipulated as readily since the usual hand tools,” aimed toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in thinking about the shape of the frame, the weight of your machine, along with its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of the coils with regards to the frame, armature, and handle. At the same time, he also greatly improved upon both the electro-magnet and armature.
As with 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 excellent breakthrough -for several fields. It had been 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 and his awesome ideas were exposed 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 a largest dental manufacturing company on the planet, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, including the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (using a spring coil inside the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, due to the description from 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 possibly a like machine. It only is practical. The engineering of these types of dental pluggers was most much like Round Liner HOLLOW. That is why, they are actually those highly sought after 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. 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 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 had been found in dentistry, being 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) -another handheld device with vertically-positioned coils. Bonwill’s assertion is 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 considered that Edison stumbled in the idea for a handheld stencil pen while tinkering with telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible that he was affected by Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences because the early 1870s. As noted in their 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 work on their various handheld devices until July of 1875. (This is a multitude of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in britain (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).