In terms of tattoo machine history, we are greatly indebted towards the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the foundation regarding his excellent patent research and the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled over the years. A similar relates to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A major thanks is due everyone who may have included in the pool of information.
I would personally like to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Equipment to me, as well as, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for their input. I might additionally love to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the areas of this post 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 a shaky research subject more likely to forever elude definitive documentation. Please remember, this piece is just 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, so 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 lacking the larger picture. As we’re about to learn here, the story of methods the electrical tattoo machine came into existence isn’t that straightforward. They have a good number of twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) is the usual character you think of when speaking of 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, in addition to his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record like a tattoo artist until 1888, by then he’d produced a name about the The Big Apple Bowery since the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Only a few 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 a handheld, reciprocating, puncturing device created 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 could have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. In reality, so evident was the tattooing potential of his inventions, it absolutely was 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 on the editor of your Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent could possibly be turned into a tattooing machine with only a few 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 once an electric powered tattoo machine was envisioned, it absolutely was only a matter of time before one is made. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions yet. As it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were working with Round Liner HOLLOW this at the beginning. Until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing did not start out with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It had been introduced no less than a few years prior. The second one half of the 1880s could have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing as a more recent phenomenon then and additional reports show substantial progression from this time forward.
Accessibility was no doubt a significant factor. This era was marked from a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. By the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, plus a greater variety of electrically driven appliances became open to most people. As advertised within an 1887 promotional article for the electrical exhibition in Ny City, an upward of 10,000 electric devices had been introduced ever since the last show in 1884, including anything from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for a variety of arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed in a 1897 interview 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 about the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan produced a sensation around the dime show stage exhibiting their “electrically tattooed” bodies. Also, in 1890, “electrically tattooed” man, George Kelly (aka Karlavagn) took for 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. Through the 1880s, Williams performed on america dime show circuit at venues for example the World’s Museum in Boston and Worth’s Museum in Ny. 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 by using a “new method” he stated was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly newest York.” Because he assured inside 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 -6 months before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the latest York Dramatic Mirror printed these:
“What is announced as the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is definitely the latest novelty in freakdom.”
When we can 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 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.
Even 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 being used. Now you ask ….. what sorts of machines were tattoo artists utilizing?
This can be 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 was not an Edison pen. It was actually a modified dental plugger (also referred to as a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion used to impact gold in cavities. A reporter for the Omaha Herald wrote regarding this in June of 1890, describing it as a “…a little electric machine, which caused a compact cable of woven wire to revolve something within the method of a drill which dentists utilization in excavating cavities in teeth…” Much like Edison’s stencil pen, a variety of dental pluggers were invented from the 1800s which are believed to happen to be 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 first electromagnetically operated dental plugger, and in so doing, the 1st electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea was created within the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of your telegraph machine operational. His first two patents were filed in 1871 (issued October 15, 1878 -US Patent 209,006) as well as in 1873 (issued November 16, 1875 -US Patent 170,045). Like today’s tattoo machines, Bonwill’s devices operated through two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset in the frame. More features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, plus a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders together with his invention. His goal was to style a product “manipulated as readily as being the usual hand tools,” aimed toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in with the form of the frame, the load of your machine, along with its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of the coils pertaining to the frame, armature, and handle. Along the way, he also greatly improved upon both 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 had been an outstanding breakthrough -for a lot of fields. It was actually so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the greatest honor of the Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around once as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines along with his ideas were exposed to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers because 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,” within the mid-1870s to mid-1880s period. S.S. White, then the largest dental manufacturing company on earth, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, including the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (with a spring coil in the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, considering the description of the visible coils on O’Reilly’s machine, there’s little chance 20dexmpky was adapted from anything other than the Bonwill or Green model, or even a like machine. It only is sensible. The engineering of most of these dental pluggers was most just like Round Liner HOLLOW. For that reason, they are generally the ones highly sought after by tattoo collectors. (See Kornberg School of Dentistry’s online database for examples of various dental pluggers).
Bonwill was fully aware his invention was transferable to other fields. Because he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, does apply to the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is essential or can be used as actuating a hammer.” A written report on exhibits at the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine have been used in dentistry, like a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, as being 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) -additionally a handheld device with vertically-positioned coils. Bonwill’s assertion is definitely 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 thought that Edison stumbled about the idea for any 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 since the early 1870s. As noted in the 1874 pamphlet A History of your Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had already 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. (It was a range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in the uk (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).