When it comes to tattoo machine history, we are greatly indebted on the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the cornerstone regarding his excellent patent research and also the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled through the years. The same relates to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A huge many thanks arrives everyone that has put into the pool of information.
I would personally personally like to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supplies to me, and also, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko with regard to their input. I would additionally love to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the areas of this short article for many 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 not really 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, and so the history may 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. But it falls lacking the greater picture. As we’re planning to learn here, the storyline 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 you think of 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, as well as his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record being a tattoo artist until 1888, at that time he’d produced 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 initial tattoo machine patent based on Thomas Edison’s 1876 rotary operated stencil pen patent (technically a rotary-electromagnetic coil hybrid).
The Edison pen was actually 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 from the 1870s that may have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. Actually, 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 was in place, an anonymous contributor (alias “Phah Phrah Phresh”) wrote a letter for the editor of your Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent may be turned into a tattooing machine with just 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-changer. Logic follows that when an electrical tattoo machine was envisioned, it was actually only dependent on time before one was created. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions at this time. As it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were utilizing Round Liner HOLLOW this early on. Until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing failed to get started with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was actually introduced at the very least a long period prior. The second 50 % of the 1880s could 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 this time forward.
Accessibility was certainly a major 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 range of electrically driven appliances became open to the public. As advertised within an 1887 promotional article on an electrical exhibition in New York City, an upward of 10,000 electric devices was introduced because 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 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 using the traditional “needles in a bunch,” technology was around the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan made a sensation about 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 found electric tattooing within this period as well. Through the entire 1880s, Williams performed on the usa dime show circuit at venues for example 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 approach to England, where he awed museum audiences by tattooing his wife, Madame Ondena, on stage having a “new method” he explained was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of the latest York.” While 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 appear to have develop into a trend in the us. In January of 1891 -6 months before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the latest York Dramatic Mirror printed the next:
“What is announced because the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is definitely the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Whenever we could also take the New York 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 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. 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 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 called a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion employed to impact gold in cavities. A reporter for your Omaha Herald wrote about this in June of 1890, describing it as being “…a little electric machine, which caused a small cable of woven wire to revolve something inside the manner of a drill which dentists use in excavating cavities in teeth…” Similar to Edison’s stencil pen, various dental pluggers were invented within the 1800s that are thought to happen to be 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 first electromagnetically operated dental plugger, and in so doing, the initial electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came into this world in the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of any telegraph machine operational. His first couple of 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 through two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset through the frame. More features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, plus a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders regarding his invention. His goal ended up being to develop a product “manipulated as readily because the usual hand tools,” geared toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in with the form of the frame, the extra weight from the machine, as well as its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement from the coils in relation to the frame, armature, and handle. At the same time, he also greatly improved upon the electro-magnet and armature.
Similar to most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But as being the first electrically operated handheld implement, it was actually an exceptional breakthrough -for a lot of fields. It absolutely was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the best honor of 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 brought to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers as 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,” 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, 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 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 a like machine. It only is practical. The engineering of these types of dental pluggers was most comparable to Round Liner HOLLOW. That is why, they are actually those highly desired by tattoo collectors. (See Kornberg School of Dentistry’s online database for instances of various dental pluggers).
Bonwill was fully aware his invention was transferable to other fields. As he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, does apply on the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is necessary or can be used as actuating a hammer.” A written report on exhibits with the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine ended up being utilized in dentistry, as a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, as 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 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 about the idea to get a handheld stencil pen while experimenting with telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible which he was influenced by Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences since the early 1870s. As noted within his 1874 pamphlet A History of your Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had already 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. (It was a multitude of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in britain (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).