When it comes to tattoo machine history, our company is greatly indebted for the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the cornerstone together with his excellent patent research along with 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 large thanks a lot is due everyone who has put into the pool of information.
I might personally want to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supply for me, along with, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for their input. I might additionally prefer to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the aspects of this short article for several years (See related blog here). Digging for information and connecting the dots was a painstaking endeavor. Their feedback helped immensely in formulating ideas and tying the pieces together.
Early tattoo machine history can be a shaky research subject very likely to forever elude definitive documentation. Please remember, this piece will not be intended to be conclusive or all-encompassing. There’s plenty left to flesh out. Hopefully, evidence presented here inspires others to delve deeper into research, therefore the history may 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 to a more modern age.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. However it falls lacking the bigger picture. As we’re intending to learn here, the story of how the electric tattoo machine came into existence isn’t that straightforward. It has a good number of twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) may be 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, together with his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record like a tattoo artist until 1888, by then he’d created a name around the New York Bowery since the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a couple of years later -in 1891 -he secured the 1st tattoo machine patent based 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 created for making paper stencils. Its form and function caused it to be an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens within the 1870s that might have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. The truth is, so evident was the tattooing potential of his inventions, it was actually 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 for the editor of your Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent might be turned 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-changer. Logic follows that after an electrical tattoo machine was envisioned, it was only an issue 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 utilizing tattoo needle cartridge this early on. Up until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
With that being said, electric tattooing failed to begin with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It had been introduced at the very least several years prior. The second half of the 1880s could have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing as a more recent phenomenon then and extra 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. With the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, along with a greater selection of electrically driven appliances became accessible to most people. As advertised inside an 1887 promotional article to have an electrical exhibition in Ny City, an upward of 10,000 electric devices was introduced considering that the last show in 1884, including anything from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for a number of arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed in an 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 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 towards 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 with this period also. Through the entire 1880s, Williams performed on america dime show circuit at venues including 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 strategy to England, where he awed museum audiences by tattooing his wife, Madame Ondena, on stage with a “new method” he explained was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of the latest York.” While 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 seem to have turn into a trend in the united states. In January of 1891 -6 months before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the newest York Dramatic Mirror printed the following:
“What is announced as being the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Once we also can go ahead and take New York Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway one of the 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, because of 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 recently been used. Now you ask , ….. what sorts of machines were tattoo artists working with?
This is perhaps the biggest revelation. The Edison pen probably wasn’t the 1st or only go-to device. O’Reilly’s first pre-patent machine was not an Edison pen. It absolutely was 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 for the Omaha Herald wrote regarding it in June of 1890, describing it “…a little electric machine, which caused a tiny cable of woven wire to revolve something in the method of a drill which dentists use in excavating cavities in teeth…” As with Edison’s stencil pen, many different dental pluggers were invented within the 1800s that happen to be thought 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, as well as in so doing, the first electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came to be within the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of any 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 in 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 ended up being to style a system “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 from the machine, and its particular mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of your coils in relation to the frame, armature, and handle. Along the way, also, he greatly improved upon the two electro-magnet and armature.
Just like most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But as being the first electrically operated handheld implement, it absolutely was an exceptional breakthrough -for many fields. It was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the very best honor in the Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around the same time frame as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines with his fantastic ideas were unveiled in the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers as being the first truly “practicable model”).
In accordance with 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 worldwide, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, including the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (with a spring coil within the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, given the description of your visible coils on O’Reilly’s machine, there’s little chance 20dexmpky was adapted from anything other than the Bonwill or Green model, or possibly a like machine. It only is sensible. The engineering of these sorts of dental pluggers was most comparable to needle cartridge. Because of this, they are the ones highly sought after 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 with other fields. Since he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, can be applied on the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is essential or can be used as actuating a hammer.” A study on exhibits in the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine ended up being found in dentistry, being a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, as being 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) -additionally a handheld device with vertically-positioned coils. Bonwill’s assertion is definitely worth mentioning, since it’s been said 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 to get a handheld stencil pen while testing telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible that he or she was affected by Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences because the early 1870s. As noted within his 1874 pamphlet A Brief History of the Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had previously been on trial in dental practices for quite a while. 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 range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in the uk (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).