In relation to tattoo machine history, we are greatly indebted towards the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the foundation along with his excellent patent research and also the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled through the years. The identical applies to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A major thanks a lot is due everyone having put into the pool of information.
I would personally personally prefer to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supply to me, in addition to, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko with regard to their 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 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 a shaky research subject prone to forever elude definitive documentation. Please remember, this piece is just 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, 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 a more modern day.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. Nevertheless it falls short of the bigger picture. As we’re going to learn here, the story of how the electric tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. They have several twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) may be the usual character you think of when talking about 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 being a tattoo artist until 1888, by then he’d crafted a name in the Ny Bowery as the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a few years later -in 1891 -he secured the initial tattoo machine patent depending on 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 made for making paper stencils. Its form and performance managed to get an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens within 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 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 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 that when an electric powered tattoo machine was envisioned, it absolutely was only a point of time before one was developed. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions yet. Since it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were utilizing tattoo needle cartridge this in the beginning. Until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing did not start with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was introduced a minimum of several years prior. The latter 50 % of the 1880s seemed to be the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing being a more recent phenomenon then and further reports show substantial progression from that period forward.
Accessibility was undoubtedly a major 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, along with a greater range of electrically driven appliances became open to most people. As advertised inside an 1887 promotional article to have an electrical exhibition in New York City, an upward of 10,000 electric devices ended up being introduced ever since the last show in 1884, including from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for various arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed in a 1897 interview that he or she 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 inside a bunch,” technology was about the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan made a sensation around the dime show stage exhibiting their “electrically tattooed” bodies. Also, in 1890, “electrically tattooed” man, George Kelly (aka Karlavagn) took to 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 too. Through the entire 1880s, Williams performed on the United States 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 method to England, where he awed museum audiences by tattooing his wife, Madame Ondena, on stage using a “new method” he explained was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of brand new York.” As 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 seem to have develop into a trend in America. In January of 1891 -half a year before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the brand new York Dramatic Mirror printed these:
“What is announced as being the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Whenever we also can use the New York City Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway among the 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 the 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 been in use. The question is ….. what kinds of machines were tattoo artists working with?
This is 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 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 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 use in excavating cavities in teeth…” Much like Edison’s stencil pen, a number of dental pluggers were invented within the 1800s which can be believed to have been modified for tattooing. Several such dental pluggers are archived in modern day 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 in so doing, the initial electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came into this world from the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of the telegraph machine in operation. His first two 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 way of two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset from your frame. More features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, as well as a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders regarding his invention. His goal had been to create a product “manipulated as readily as being the usual hand tools,” geared toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in considering the form of the frame, the body weight in the machine, and its particular mechanical efficiency, via size and placement in the coils in relation to the frame, armature, and handle. In the process, he also greatly improved upon both the electro-magnet and armature.
Just 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 a superb breakthrough -for many fields. It absolutely was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the greatest honor from the Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around the same time frame as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines along with his ideas were introduced to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers as being 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,” from the mid-1870s to mid-1880s period. S.S. White, then your largest dental manufacturing company worldwide, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, for example the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (using a spring coil within the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, due to the description of your visible coils on O’Reilly’s machine, there’s little chance 20dexmpky was adapted from anything besides the Bonwill or Green model, or perhaps a like machine. It only is sensible. The engineering of these types of dental pluggers was most similar to tattoo needle cartridge. For this reason, they are actually those 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 to many 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 essential or can be used actuating a hammer.” A written report on exhibits in the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine have been used in dentistry, as being a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, as an autographic pen.
Interestingly, years earlier in a 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 may be worth mentioning, since it’s been mentioned 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 on the idea for a handheld stencil pen while experimenting with telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible that he or she 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 A Brief History of your 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 is a wide range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in england (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).