When it comes to tattoo machine history, we have been greatly indebted towards the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the basis with his excellent patent research and the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled over time. The identical is applicable to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A major thanks a lot arrives everyone having included with the pool of knowledge.
I would personally like to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supplies if you ask me, and also, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for his or her input. I might additionally like to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the elements 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 prone to forever elude definitive documentation. Please bear in mind, 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, hence the history could 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 into 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 bigger picture. As we’re about to learn here, the tale of methods the electrical tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. They have quite a few 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 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, together with his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record as a tattoo artist until 1888, by then he’d crafted a name about the New York Bowery as 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 had been a handheld, reciprocating, puncturing device intended for making paper stencils. Its form and performance managed to make it an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens in the 1870s that may have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. In fact, 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 to 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 once an electric tattoo machine was envisioned, it was only a matter of time before one is made. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions yet. Because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were working with tattoo needle cartridge this in the beginning. Up 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 absolutely was introduced at least several years prior. The latter 1 / 2 of the 1880s seemed to be the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing being a more recent phenomenon then and other reports show substantial progression from that period forward.
Accessibility was undoubtedly 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, along with a greater variety of electrically driven appliances became accessible to the public. As advertised inside an 1887 promotional article for the electrical exhibition in Ny City, an upward of ten thousand electric devices had been introduced since 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 within 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 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 produced a sensation around the dime show stage exhibiting their “electrically tattooed” bodies. Also, in 1890, “electrically tattooed” man, George Kelly (aka Karlavagn) took on 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 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 The Big Apple. 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 with a “new method” he was quoted saying was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly newest 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 become a trend in the us. In January of 1891 -six months time before O’Reilly requested his patent -the newest York Dramatic Mirror printed the following:
“What is announced as being the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is definitely the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Whenever we may also consider the The Big Apple Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway amongst 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, because of the 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. The question is ….. what sorts of machines were tattoo artists dealing with?
This can be possibly 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 used to impact gold in cavities. A reporter to the Omaha Herald wrote regarding it in June of 1890, describing it as “…a little electric machine, which caused a compact cable of woven wire to revolve something inside the method of a drill which dentists use within excavating cavities in teeth…” Similar to Edison’s stencil pen, various dental pluggers were invented inside the 1800s which are believed to are already 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 1st electromagnetically operated dental plugger, and also in so doing, the first electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came into this world inside the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of the telegraph machine in operation. 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 by means of 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 together with his invention. His goal have been to design a product “manipulated as readily as the usual hand tools,” aimed toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in thinking about the model of the frame, the body weight in the machine, and its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of the coils in terms of the frame, armature, and handle. At the same time, also, he greatly improved upon the two electro-magnet and armature.
Similar to most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But since the first electrically operated handheld implement, it was actually a superb breakthrough -for several fields. It was actually so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the highest honor from the Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around once as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines with his fantastic ideas were exposed 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,” within the mid-1870s to mid-1880s period. S.S. White, then the largest dental manufacturing company worldwide, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, like 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 aside from the Bonwill or Green model, or possibly a like machine. It only is practical. The engineering of these sorts of dental pluggers was most similar to tattoo needle cartridge. That is why, they happen to be the people highly desired 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 with 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 essential or can be used as actuating a hammer.” A report on exhibits at the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine was used in dentistry, as being a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, for 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) -yet another 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 considered that Edison stumbled on the idea to get a handheld stencil pen while testing 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 A Brief History from 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 focus on their various handheld devices until July of 1875. (This was a range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in england (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).