With regards to tattoo machine history, we are greatly indebted to the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the basis regarding his excellent patent research as well as the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled over the years. The identical relates to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A huge thank you is due everyone who may have included in the pool of information.
I would personally love to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supplies for me, along with, 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 facets of this article for several 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 a shaky research subject prone to forever elude definitive documentation. Please remember, this piece will not be meant to be conclusive or all-encompassing. There’s plenty left to flesh out. Hopefully, evidence presented here inspires others to delve deeper into research, therefore the history could be more fully understood.
“The first electric tattoo machine was invented in The Big Apple 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 day.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. Nevertheless it falls short of the larger picture. As we’re about to learn here, the story of how the electrical tattoo machine came into existence isn’t that straightforward. It provides several twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) will be the usual character you think of when speaking of 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, along with his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record being a tattoo artist until 1888, at that time he’d produced a name in the The Big Apple Bowery because the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a couple years later -in 1891 -he secured the very first tattoo machine patent depending on 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 intended for making paper stencils. Its form and function made it an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens in the 1870s that may have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. The truth is, 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 at place, an anonymous contributor (alias “Phah Phrah Phresh”) wrote a letter on the editor of your 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-changer. Logic follows that once an electrical tattoo machine was envisioned, it was only dependent on time before one was developed. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions just yet. Mainly because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were working with needle cartridge this in early stages. Till the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
With that being said, electric tattooing did not get started with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was actually introduced no less than many years prior. The second half of the 1880s could have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing like a more modern phenomenon then and extra reports show substantial progression from that point forward.
Accessibility was undoubtedly a major 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 the public. As advertised within an 1887 promotional article on an electrical exhibition in Ny City, an upward of ten thousand electric devices had been introduced ever since the last show in 1884, including from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for a variety of arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed inside an 1897 interview which 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 around the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan made 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 picked up electric tattooing within this period at the same time. During the entire 1880s, Williams performed on the us 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 way to England, where he awed museum audiences by tattooing his wife, Madame Ondena, on stage with a “new method” he was quoted saying was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of the latest York.” While 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 appear to have be a trend in the us. In January of 1891 -6 months before O’Reilly requested his patent -the newest York Dramatic Mirror printed the subsequent:
“What is announced since the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is definitely the latest novelty in freakdom.”
When we can also take the New York City Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway amongst 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, due to the introduction of electric tattoo machines.
Including the wording of O’Reilly’s patent application -he had invented “new and useful Improvements in Tattooing-Machines” -suggests electric tattoo machines had previously been in use. The question is ….. what sorts of machines were tattoo artists working with?
This is certainly perhaps 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 actually a modified dental plugger (also called a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion utilized to impact gold in cavities. A reporter for that Omaha Herald wrote about it in June of 1890, describing it as “…a little electric machine, which caused a tiny cable of woven wire to revolve something inside the method of a drill which dentists use in excavating cavities in teeth…” As with Edison’s stencil pen, a number of dental pluggers were invented inside the 1800s which are thought to happen to be modified for tattooing. Several such dental pluggers are archived in contemporary tattoo collections.
An industrious dentist and inventor named William Gibson Arlington Bonwill (1833-1899) is credited with inventing the very first electromagnetically operated dental plugger, and in so doing, the very first electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came into this world 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 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 in the frame. More features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, and a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders regarding his invention. His goal was to style a device “manipulated as readily because the usual hand tools,” geared toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in considering the model of the frame, the body weight of the machine, and its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of your coils with regards to the frame, armature, and handle. At the same time, he also greatly improved upon both the electro-magnet and armature.
Similar to most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But as the first electrically operated handheld implement, it had been an exceptional breakthrough -for most fields. It had been 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 and his ideas were exposed to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers because 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 this largest dental manufacturing company worldwide, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, including the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (having a spring coil from the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, because of the description in the visible coils on O’Reilly’s machine, there’s little chance 20dexmpky was adapted from anything other than the Bonwill or Green model, or perhaps a like machine. It only is sensible. The engineering of these types of dental pluggers was most comparable to needle cartridge. For this reason, they are those highly desired by tattoo collectors. (See Kornberg School of Dentistry’s online database for instances of various dental pluggers).
Bonwill was fully aware his invention was transferable for some other fields. Because 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 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 had been used 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 is worth mentioning, since it’s been mentioned 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 the handheld stencil pen while testing telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible that he was relying on Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences since the early 1870s. As noted within his 1874 pamphlet A Brief History in 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 towards their various handheld devices until July of 1875. (This became a multitude of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in england (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).