In terms of tattoo machine history, we have been greatly indebted for the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the building blocks along with his excellent patent research and also the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled throughout the years. The identical applies to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A major thank you arrives everyone having put into the pool of information.
I might personally like to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supply in my opinion, in addition to, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko with regard to their 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 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 more likely to forever elude definitive documentation. Please take into account, 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, so the history can 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 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 greater picture. As we’re planning to learn here, the history of how the electrical tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. They have several twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) is the usual character that comes to mind when talking about 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 as a tattoo artist until 1888, by then he’d created a name on the New York Bowery since the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a few years later -in 1891 -he secured the initial 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 created 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 might have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. In fact, 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 is in 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 might be transformed 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 electric powered tattoo machine was envisioned, it was actually only dependent on time before one was created. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions just yet. Mainly because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were working together with tattoo needle cartridge this at the beginning. Before the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing did not begin with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was actually introduced no less than a long period prior. The latter 50 % of the 1880s might have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing as a more modern phenomenon then and further reports show substantial progression from that time forward.
Accessibility was without doubt an important factor. This era was marked from a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. By the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, as well as a greater selection of electrically driven appliances became accessible to the general public. As advertised in a 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 many different arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed inside 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 together with the traditional “needles in the bunch,” technology was on the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan created a sensation in 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 picked up electric tattooing in this period too. During the entire 1880s, Williams performed on the usa 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 method 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 brand new York.” Because 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 have become a trend in the united states. In January of 1891 -six months before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the newest York Dramatic Mirror printed the subsequent:
“What is announced since the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Once we may also consider the Ny Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway one of 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.
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 kinds of machines were tattoo artists utilizing?
This is certainly possibly the biggest revelation. The Edison pen probably wasn’t the 1st or only go-to device. O’Reilly’s first pre-patent machine had not been an Edison pen. It was actually a modified dental plugger (also referred to as a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion employed to impact gold in cavities. A reporter for your Omaha Herald wrote about it in June of 1890, describing it as a “…a little electric machine, which caused a compact cable of woven wire to revolve something in the method of a drill which dentists utilization in excavating cavities in teeth…” Similar to Edison’s stencil pen, a number of dental pluggers were invented inside the 1800s which can be considered to have been 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 then in so doing, the initial electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea was born inside the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of a telegraph machine in operation. His first couple of 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 using two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset through the frame. Additional features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, plus a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders along with his invention. His goal had been to design a device “manipulated as readily since the usual hand tools,” geared toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in with the form of the frame, the weight from the machine, and its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of your coils pertaining to the frame, armature, and handle. During this process, also, he 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 a superb breakthrough -for most fields. It was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the very best honor of your 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 because 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,” inside the mid-1870s to mid-1880s period. S.S. White, then the largest dental manufacturing company worldwide, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, for example the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (with a spring coil in the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, due to 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 a like machine. It only is sensible. The engineering of these types of dental pluggers was most similar to tattoo needle cartridge. Because of this, they happen to be the people highly preferred 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, does apply on the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is required or can be used actuating a hammer.” A study on exhibits in the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine had been utilized in dentistry, as being a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, being 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 will be worth mentioning, since it’s been claimed 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 in the idea to get a handheld stencil pen while experimenting with 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 since the early 1870s. As noted within his 1874 pamphlet Historical Past from 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 britain (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).