With regards to tattoo machine history, we are greatly indebted to the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the cornerstone together with his excellent patent research as well as the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled over time. A similar is applicable to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A large thanks a lot is due everyone who may have included in the pool of knowledge.
I would personally personally love to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supplies to me, as well as, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for input. I would additionally like to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the aspects of this article for several 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 take into account, this piece is not intended 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 might 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 in to a more modern age.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. Nevertheless it falls lacking the greater picture. As we’re about to learn here, the tale of how the electrical tattoo machine came into existence isn’t that straightforward. It has a number of twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) may be the usual character that comes to mind when talking about 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, along with his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record like a tattoo artist until 1888, at that time he’d produced a name on the New York City Bowery since the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a couple years later -in 1891 -he secured the 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 performance managed to get an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens inside 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 was recognized almost right from the start.
In 1878, nearly thirteen years before O’Reilly’s patent is in 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 may 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 title-changer. Logic follows that after an electric tattoo machine was envisioned, it was actually only a matter of time before one was developed. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions just yet. Mainly because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were working together with needle cartridge this in the beginning. Until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing failed to start out with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was actually 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 as a more modern phenomenon then and additional reports show substantial progression from that time forward.
Accessibility was no doubt an important factor. This period was marked with a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. From the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, as well as a greater variety of electrically driven appliances became accessible to the general public. As advertised inside an 1887 promotional article to have an electrical exhibition in The Big Apple, 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 number 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 with all 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 produced a sensation in 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 with this period too. During 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 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 with a “new method” he said was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of New York.” Because 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 appear to have become a trend in the united states. In January of 1891 -half a year before O’Reilly requested his patent -the New York Dramatic Mirror printed the following:
“What is announced as the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Once we could also consider the Ny Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway on the list of dime show crowd. In March of 1891 -still months 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.
Including 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 previously been used. The question is ….. what kinds of machines were tattoo artists utilizing?
This is certainly perhaps the biggest revelation. The Edison pen probably wasn’t the very first or only go-to device. O’Reilly’s first pre-patent machine had not been an Edison pen. It had been a modified dental plugger (also known as a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion employed to impact gold in cavities. A reporter to the Omaha Herald wrote about it in June of 1890, describing it as a “…a little electric machine, which caused a little cable of woven wire to revolve something from the manner of a drill which dentists use within excavating cavities in teeth…” Much like Edison’s stencil pen, a variety of dental pluggers were invented inside the 1800s that happen to be considered to are already 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 1st electromagnetically operated dental plugger, and in so doing, the first electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came to be from the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of your telegraph machine in operation. 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 using two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset from the frame. Extra features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, along with a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders with his invention. His goal was to design a system “manipulated as readily since the usual hand tools,” geared toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in taking into consideration the model of the frame, the weight in the machine, along with its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of the coils pertaining to the frame, armature, and handle. At the same time, 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 because the first electrically operated handheld implement, it absolutely was an outstanding breakthrough -for most fields. It had been so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the very best honor from the Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around once as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines and his ideas were exposed to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers since the first truly “practicable model”).
According to 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,” from the mid-1870s to mid-1880s period. S.S. White, then the largest dental manufacturing company on the planet, 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, given 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 sensible. The engineering of most of these dental pluggers was most much like tattoo needle cartridge. For that reason, they are the ones highly desired 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 to other fields. Since he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, can be applied to the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is required or can be used as actuating a hammer.” A report on exhibits on the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine have been used in dentistry, 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 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 on the idea to get a handheld stencil pen while trying out telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible which he was influenced by Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences ever since the early 1870s. As noted in his 1874 pamphlet The Story of the Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had previously been on trial in dental practices for many 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 became an array of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in britain (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).