When it comes to tattoo machine history, our company is greatly indebted towards the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the foundation along with his excellent patent research as well as the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled throughout the years. The same applies to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A huge thanks a lot arrives everyone who has included with the pool of information.
I would personally personally love to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Equipment in my opinion, as well as, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for his or her input. I would personally additionally like to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the aspects of this short article for a number of years (See related blog here). Digging for information and connecting the dots had been a painstaking endeavor. Their feedback helped immensely in formulating ideas and tying the pieces together.
Early tattoo machine history is a shaky research subject prone to forever elude definitive documentation. Please bear 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, hence the history might 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 in to 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 larger picture. As we’re planning to learn here, the story of how the electrical tattoo machine came into existence isn’t that straightforward. It has quite a few twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) may be the usual character you think of when speaking of early tattoo machines. O’Reilly was created 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, at that time he’d crafted a name in the The Big Apple Bowery as being the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a couple years later -in 1891 -he secured the very first 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 designed for making paper stencils. Its form and function managed to get an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens within the 1870s that could have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. In fact, 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 to the editor in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent could 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-changer. Logic follows once an electrical tattoo machine was envisioned, it was only a matter of time before one is made. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions at this time. Mainly because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were dealing with tattoo needle cartridge this in early stages. Up until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing failed to get started with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It had been introduced at the very least a long period prior. The second 1 / 2 of the 1880s could have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing as a more modern phenomenon then and other reports show substantial progression from that point forward.
Accessibility was certainly an important factor. This era was marked with a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. Through the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, and a greater array of electrically driven appliances became open to most people. As advertised within an 1887 promotional article for an electrical exhibition in New York City, an upward of 10,000 electric devices ended up being introduced ever 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 within 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 in a bunch,” technology was around the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan created a sensation about 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 found electric tattooing in this particular period as well. Throughout the 1880s, Williams performed on america dime show circuit at venues including 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 strategy 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 the latest York.” As he assured inside 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 become a trend in the us. In January of 1891 -half a year before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the New York Dramatic Mirror printed these:
“What is announced because the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man may be the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Once we also can use the The Big Apple Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway among the dime show crowd. In March of 1891 -still months before 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.
The wording of O’Reilly’s patent application -he had invented “new and useful Improvements in Tattooing-Machines” -suggests electric tattoo machines had already been used. Now you ask , ….. what kinds of machines were tattoo artists working together with?
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 actually 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 the Omaha Herald wrote regarding this in June of 1890, describing it as being “…a little electric machine, which caused a small cable of woven wire to revolve something within the method of a drill which dentists use within excavating cavities in teeth…” Much like Edison’s stencil pen, a variety of dental pluggers were invented in the 1800s which can be considered to have 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 1st electromagnetically operated dental plugger, and then in so doing, the first electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came into this world from the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of the telegraph machine functioning. His initial two 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 means of two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset from your frame. More features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, along with a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders with his invention. His goal was to style a product “manipulated as readily as being the usual hand tools,” aimed toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in with the shape of the frame, the weight in the machine, along with its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of the coils in terms of the frame, armature, and handle. During this process, also, he greatly improved upon both electro-magnet and armature.
Much like most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But because the first electrically operated handheld implement, it had been a superb breakthrough -for most fields. It was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the greatest 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 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,” within the mid-1870s to mid-1880s period. S.S. White, then your largest dental manufacturing company in the world, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, including the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (with a spring coil inside the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, given the description of your visible coils on O’Reilly’s machine, there’s little chance 20dexmpky was adapted from anything apart from the Bonwill or Green model, or a like machine. It only makes sense. The engineering of these types of dental pluggers was most comparable to tattoo needle cartridge. For this reason, they are the ones highly sought after by tattoo collectors. (See Kornberg School of Dentistry’s online database for examples of various dental pluggers).
Bonwill was fully aware his invention was transferable for some other fields. While 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 needed or can be used actuating a hammer.” A written report on exhibits at the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine have been utilized in dentistry, as being 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 will be 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 about the idea for a handheld stencil pen while tinkering with telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible which he was affected by Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences because the early 1870s. As noted in the 1874 pamphlet Historical Past of your 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 on their various handheld devices until July of 1875. (This became a range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in the United Kingdom (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).