When it comes to tattoo machine history, we have been greatly indebted towards the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the foundation together with his excellent patent research along with the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled throughout the years. The identical pertains to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A big thanks arrives everyone who has added to the pool of information.
I would personally personally like to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supply if you ask me, in addition to, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for their input. I would additionally like to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the aspects of this article for a number of 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 is actually a shaky research subject prone 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, evidence presented here inspires others to delve deeper into research, hence the history could 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 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 larger picture. As we’re intending to learn here, the story of methods the electric tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. It has several twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) will be the usual character that comes to mind when speaking of early tattoo machines. O’Reilly came into this world 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 around the New York Bowery as the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a couple of 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 function made 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. Actually, so evident was the tattooing potential of his inventions, it absolutely was recognized almost right from the start.
In 1878, nearly thirteen years before O’Reilly’s patent is in place, an anonymous contributor (alias “Phah Phrah Phresh”) wrote a letter for the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent may be turned into a tattooing machine with only 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 title-changer. Logic follows that when an electric tattoo machine was envisioned, it was actually only a point of time before one is made. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions just yet. Because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were working together with tattoo needle cartridge this at the beginning. Till the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing failed to start out with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was actually introduced at least many years prior. The second 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 this time forward.
Accessibility was undoubtedly a serious factor. This era was marked by way of 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 available 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 since the last show in 1884, including anything from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for a variety of arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed in a 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 within a bunch,” technology was around the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan crafted a sensation about 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 picked up electric tattooing in this particular period too. Through the entire 1880s, Williams performed on america dime show circuit at venues like the World’s Museum in Boston and Worth’s Museum in The Big Apple. 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 by using a “new method” he explained was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of the latest York.” As 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 turn into a trend in America. In January of 1891 -half a year before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the newest York Dramatic Mirror printed the next:
“What is announced because the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man may be the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Whenever we may also consider the New York City Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway on the list of 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, 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 being used. The question is ….. what forms of machines were tattoo artists working together with?
This really is possibly the biggest revelation. The Edison pen probably wasn’t the first or only go-to device. O’Reilly’s first pre-patent machine was not an Edison pen. It was a modified dental plugger (also called a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion used to impact gold in cavities. A reporter to the Omaha Herald wrote regarding it in June of 1890, describing it as a “…a little electric machine, which caused a small cable of woven wire to revolve something in the method of a drill which dentists utilization in excavating cavities in teeth…” Much like 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 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 also in so doing, the initial electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came to be inside the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of a telegraph machine operational. His first couple of 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 using two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset from the frame. Extra features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, plus a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders together with his invention. His goal ended up being to develop a product “manipulated as readily as being the usual hand tools,” geared toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in taking into consideration the model of the frame, the load from the machine, as well as its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement from the coils in terms of the frame, armature, and handle. Along the way, also, he greatly improved upon both electro-magnet and armature.
Just like most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But as the first electrically operated handheld implement, it was actually a superb breakthrough -for most fields. It absolutely 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 exposed to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers as the first truly “practicable model”).
As outlined by 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 on the planet, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, including the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (by using a spring coil from the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, considering 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 sensible. The engineering of these sorts of dental pluggers was most much like Round Liner HOLLOW. That is why, they happen to be the people 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 to other fields. Since he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, does apply towards the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is necessary or can be used for actuating a hammer.” A report on exhibits at the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine have been used in dentistry, as being a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, as 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) -yet another handheld device with vertically-positioned coils. Bonwill’s assertion is definitely worth mentioning, since it’s been stated that Edison’s invention was the inspiration for Charlie Wagner’s 1904 tattoo machine patent (US Patent 768,413). Though it’s typically believed that Edison stumbled in the idea for any handheld stencil pen while trying out telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible which he was relying on Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences considering that the early 1870s. As noted in his 1874 pamphlet A Brief History of the Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had been on trial in dental practices for quite some time. 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. (This is a wide range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in britain (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).