In terms of tattoo machine history, we have been greatly indebted for the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the building blocks with his excellent patent research as well as the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled through the years. A similar is applicable to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A huge thanks is due everyone that has put into the pool of information.
I would personally love to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Equipment in my opinion, along with, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko with regard to their input. I would personally additionally want to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the facets of this informative article for several years (See related blog here). Digging for information and connecting the dots was really a painstaking endeavor. Their feedback helped immensely in formulating ideas and tying the pieces together.
Early tattoo machine history is a shaky research subject very likely to forever elude definitive documentation. Please keep in mind, this piece is not really 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, hence the history may be more fully understood.
“The first electric tattoo machine was invented in The Big Apple 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 really falls lacking the bigger picture. As we’re going to learn here, the story of how 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 definitely the usual character that comes to mind 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 like a tattoo artist until 1888, at that time he’d created a name on the Ny Bowery as being the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a couple years later -in 1891 -he secured the first tattoo machine patent according to 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 intended for making paper stencils. Its form and function caused it to be 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. 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 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 may be transformed 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 once an electric powered tattoo machine was envisioned, it was actually only a point of time before one is made. 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 in the beginning. Up until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing did not get started with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It absolutely was introduced no less than many years prior. The latter half of the 1880s could have been 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 without doubt a significant factor. This era was marked by a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. With the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, plus a greater selection of electrically driven appliances became accessible to most people. As advertised in a 1887 promotional article for an electrical exhibition in New York, an upward of ten thousand electric devices ended up being introduced considering that the last show in 1884, including anything from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for many different 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 within a bunch,” technology was around the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan produced a sensation about 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 acquired electric tattooing in this particular period at the same time. During the entire 1880s, Williams performed on the usa dime show circuit at venues like the World’s Museum in Boston and Worth’s Museum in Ny. 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 was quoted saying was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly newest York.” As he assured in 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 become a trend in America. In January of 1891 -six months before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the latest York Dramatic Mirror printed the following:
“What is announced as the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is definitely the latest novelty in freakdom.”
When we also can take the The Big Apple Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway amongst the 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 -he had invented “new and useful Improvements in Tattooing-Machines” -suggests electric tattoo machines had been in use. The question is ….. what sorts of machines were tattoo artists working together with?
This can be probably the biggest revelation. The Edison pen probably wasn’t the initial or only go-to device. O’Reilly’s first pre-patent machine had not been an Edison pen. It was 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 for your Omaha Herald wrote about this in June of 1890, describing it as “…a little electric machine, which caused a tiny cable of woven wire to revolve something inside the manner of a drill which dentists utilization in excavating cavities in teeth…” Much like Edison’s stencil pen, a number of dental pluggers were invented from the 1800s that are thought 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 1st electromagnetically operated dental plugger, and also in so doing, the initial electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came to be in the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of the telegraph machine operational. His initial two patents were filed in 1871 (issued October 15, 1878 -US Patent 209,006) and also 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 from the frame. Extra features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, and a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders regarding his invention. His goal was to create a device “manipulated as readily as being the usual hand tools,” aimed toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in considering the form of the frame, the body weight in the machine, and its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement from the coils in relation to the frame, armature, and handle. In the process, also, he greatly improved upon the electro-magnet and armature.
As with most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But as being the first electrically operated handheld implement, it had been an excellent breakthrough -for a lot of fields. It was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the highest honor in the Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around once as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines and his awesome ideas were exposed to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers because 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,” from the mid-1870s to mid-1880s period. S.S. White, then your largest dental manufacturing company on earth, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, like the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (by 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 sensible. The engineering of these kinds of dental pluggers was most similar to Round Liner HOLLOW. That is why, they are actually the ones highly popular 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 with other fields. While 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 as actuating a hammer.” A report on exhibits on the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine had been found in dentistry, as a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, being an autographic pen.
Interestingly, years earlier in 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) -also a handheld device with vertically-positioned coils. Bonwill’s assertion is definitely 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 believed Edison stumbled about the idea for any handheld stencil pen while tinkering 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 because the early 1870s. As noted in his 1874 pamphlet A History in the Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had already 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 towards their various handheld devices until July of 1875. (This is a multitude of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in the United Kingdom (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).