In terms of tattoo machine history, we have been greatly indebted for the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the foundation along with his excellent patent research and also the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled throughout the years. The identical relates to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A major thanks arrives everyone having added to the pool of knowledge.
I would personally like to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Equipment for me, along with, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for his or her input. I would additionally like to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the elements of this 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 can be a shaky research subject very likely to forever elude definitive documentation. Please keep in mind, this piece is not 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, and so 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 greater picture. As we’re intending to learn here, the story of methods the electrical tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. It provides 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 being a tattoo artist until 1888, by then he’d produced a name in the Ny Bowery because the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a few 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 really a handheld, reciprocating, puncturing device created for making paper stencils. Its form and performance caused it to be an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens from the 1870s that could have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. Actually, 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 in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent may be turned into a tattooing machine with just a couple of 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 when an electric tattoo machine was envisioned, it was only an issue 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 together with tattoo needle cartridge this at the beginning. Until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing did not start with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was actually introduced a minimum of several years prior. The latter half of the 1880s might have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing like a more recent phenomenon then and further reports show substantial progression from this time forward.
Accessibility was without doubt an important factor. This era was marked with a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. From the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, and a greater range of electrically driven appliances became offered to the public. As advertised within an 1887 promotional article on an electrical exhibition in The Big Apple, an upward of 10,000 electric devices had been introduced ever since the last show in 1884, including from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for various 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 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 produced a sensation in 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 found electric tattooing with this period too. Through the 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 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 using a “new method” he stated was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of the latest York.” Since he assured in the 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 America. In January of 1891 -six months before O’Reilly requested his patent -the brand new York Dramatic Mirror printed these:
“What is announced as being the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is the latest novelty in freakdom.”
When we can also go ahead and take New York City 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, as a result of introduction of electric tattoo machines.
Even the wording of O’Reilly’s patent application -he had invented “new and useful Improvements in Tattooing-Machines” -suggests electric tattoo machines had recently been utilized. Now you ask ….. what types of machines were tattoo artists utilizing?
This is certainly probably 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 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 it in June of 1890, describing it “…a little electric machine, which caused a small cable of woven wire to revolve something inside the method of a drill which dentists use within excavating cavities in teeth…” As with Edison’s stencil pen, various dental pluggers were invented inside the 1800s which are considered to have already been modified for tattooing. Several such dental pluggers are archived in current 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 in so doing, the very first electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came to be inside the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of any telegraph machine functioning. His first 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 by way of two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset from the frame. Additional features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, plus a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders regarding his invention. His goal have been to create a device “manipulated as readily because the usual hand tools,” geared toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in taking into consideration the form of the frame, the extra weight of the machine, and its particular mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of your coils in relation to the frame, armature, and handle. During this process, he also greatly improved upon the two 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 absolutely was an outstanding breakthrough -for many fields. It was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the best honor of your 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 being the first truly “practicable model”).
According to 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, including the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (by using a spring coil in the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, because of 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 possibly a like machine. It only is a good idea. The engineering of these sorts of dental pluggers was most just like Round Liner HOLLOW. For that reason, they are those highly popular 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. While he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, can be applied for the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is necessary or can be used for actuating a hammer.” A report on exhibits in the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine ended up being used in dentistry, as 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) -yet another handheld device with vertically-positioned coils. Bonwill’s assertion may be 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 believed Edison stumbled around the idea for any handheld stencil pen while tinkering with telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible he was relying on Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences since the early 1870s. As noted in his 1874 pamphlet A History of your Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had 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. (It was a wide range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in britain (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).