With regards to tattoo machine history, our company is greatly indebted on the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the foundation regarding his excellent patent research as well as the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled throughout the years. Exactly the same applies to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A big thanks arrives everyone who may have put into the pool of information.
I would personally personally want to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Equipment in my opinion, in addition to, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for their input. I would personally additionally love to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the aspects of this article for many 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 can be a shaky research subject 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, 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 right into a more modern age.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. Nevertheless it falls lacking the bigger picture. As we’re intending to learn here, the tale of methods the electrical tattoo machine came into existence isn’t that straightforward. It has a good number of 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 to be 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, at that time he’d created a name about the New York City Bowery because the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a few 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 really 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 inside the 1870s that might have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. In reality, so evident was the tattooing potential of his inventions, it had been recognized almost from the very beginning.
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 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 title-changer. Logic follows that after an electric powered tattoo machine was envisioned, it had been only a matter of time before one was made. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions at this time. Because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were working together with tattoo needle cartridge this in the beginning. Until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing failed to start with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was introduced no less than several years prior. The second 50 % of the 1880s could have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing being a more recent phenomenon then and extra reports show substantial progression from that point forward.
Accessibility was undoubtedly a serious factor. This period was marked from a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. By the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, plus a greater range of electrically driven appliances became offered to the public. As advertised in a 1887 promotional article for an electrical exhibition in The Big Apple, 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 many different arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed in 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 inside a bunch,” technology was on the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan made a sensation in 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 acquired electric tattooing within this period too. During the entire 1880s, Williams performed on the usa dime show circuit at venues such as the World’s Museum in Boston and Worth’s Museum in New York. 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 said was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of the latest York.” Since 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 appear to have be a trend in America. In January of 1891 -half a year before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the latest York Dramatic Mirror printed the subsequent:
“What is announced as the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man may be the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Once we may also use 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 prior to 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.
Even wording of O’Reilly’s patent application -that he had invented “new and useful Improvements in Tattooing-Machines” -suggests electric tattoo machines had previously been utilized. Now you ask , ….. what kinds of machines were tattoo artists dealing with?
This really is 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 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 to the Omaha Herald wrote regarding this in June of 1890, describing it as “…a little electric machine, which caused a compact cable of woven wire to revolve something inside the manner of a drill which dentists utilize in excavating cavities in teeth…” As with Edison’s stencil pen, a number of dental pluggers were invented inside the 1800s that are considered to happen to be 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 initial electromagnetically operated dental plugger, and then in so doing, the very first electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea was born inside the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of your telegraph machine operational. His first two patents were filed in 1871 (issued October 15, 1878 -US Patent 209,006) as well as 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, and a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders with his invention. His goal was to style a system “manipulated as readily since the usual hand tools,” aimed toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in thinking about the form of the frame, the weight of your machine, along with its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement from the coils with regards to the frame, armature, and handle. In the process, he also greatly improved upon both the electro-magnet and armature.
Much like 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 of your Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around once as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines and his ideas were introduced 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 this largest dental manufacturing company worldwide, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, like the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (having a spring coil inside the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, given the description of the visible coils on O’Reilly’s machine, there’s little chance 20dexmpky was adapted from anything apart from the Bonwill or Green model, or even a like machine. It only is sensible. The engineering of these types of dental pluggers was most similar to needle cartridge. For that reason, they are the ones 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 other fields. Because he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, does apply for the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is required or can be used as actuating a hammer.” A study on exhibits at the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine have been employed in dentistry, as a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, as being 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) -also a handheld device with vertically-positioned coils. Bonwill’s assertion is 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 considered that Edison stumbled around the idea for a handheld stencil pen while testing 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 their 1874 pamphlet Historical Past from the Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had recently 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 work with their various handheld devices until July of 1875. (It was a wide range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in england (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).