With regards to tattoo machine history, we have been greatly indebted to the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the building blocks regarding his excellent patent research as well as the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled over the years. The same is applicable to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A huge many thanks arrives everyone who has included with the pool of knowledge.
I would personally personally love to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Equipment to me, along with, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko with regard to their input. I might additionally like to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the elements of this article for several 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 actually a shaky research subject very likely to forever elude definitive documentation. Please remember, this piece will not be 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 might be more fully understood.
“The first electric tattoo machine was invented in New York 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 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 greater picture. As we’re planning to learn here, the history of methods the electrical tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. It has quite a few twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) is definitely the usual character that comes to mind when talking about 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, as well as his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record like a tattoo artist until 1888, at that time he’d crafted a name on the The Big Apple Bowery because the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Only a few 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 had been a handheld, reciprocating, puncturing device made for making paper stencils. Its form and performance made it an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens from the 1870s that might have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. In fact, so evident was the tattooing potential of his inventions, it was 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 transformed into a tattooing machine with just 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 powered tattoo machine was envisioned, it was actually only a matter of time before one was created. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions yet. Mainly because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were dealing with Round Liner HOLLOW this in early stages. 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 no less than several years prior. The latter 50 % of the 1880s may have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing as a more modern phenomenon then and extra reports show substantial progression from that time forward.
Accessibility was without doubt a significant factor. This era was marked by a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. By the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, plus a greater selection of electrically driven appliances became offered to the general public. As advertised in a 1887 promotional article for the electrical exhibition in New York, an upward of ten thousand electric devices had been introduced because the last show in 1884, including from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for a number of 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 all the traditional “needles in a bunch,” technology was in the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan produced a sensation on 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 gathered electric tattooing within this period at the same time. Through 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 strategy to England, where he awed museum audiences by tattooing his wife, Madame Ondena, on stage by using a “new method” he said was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of New York.” Because 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 develop into a trend in the usa. In January of 1891 -6 months before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the New York Dramatic Mirror printed these:
“What is announced because the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is the latest novelty in freakdom.”
If we also can take the The Big Apple Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway on the list of dime show crowd. In March of 1891 -still months just 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.
Even 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 sorts of machines were tattoo artists working 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 actually a modified dental plugger (also referred to as a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion accustomed to impact gold in cavities. A reporter for your Omaha Herald wrote regarding this in June of 1890, describing it as a “…a little electric machine, which caused a compact cable of woven wire to revolve something in the method of a drill which dentists use in excavating cavities in teeth…” Similar to Edison’s stencil pen, a variety of dental pluggers were invented in the 1800s that happen to be 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 1st electromagnetically operated dental plugger, and in so doing, the 1st electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea was born within the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of a telegraph machine functioning. His first couple of 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 through two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset from your frame. Additional 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 style a device “manipulated as readily because 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 in the coils pertaining to the frame, armature, and handle. Along the way, also, he greatly improved upon the electro-magnet and armature.
Similar to most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But because the first electrically operated handheld implement, it absolutely was an exceptional breakthrough -for many fields. It absolutely was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the highest honor from the Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around the same time as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines and his ideas were unveiled in the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers as being the first truly “practicable model”).
Based on 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 this largest dental manufacturing company worldwide, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, for example the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (using a spring coil in 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 even a like machine. It only is practical. The engineering of most of these dental pluggers was most just like needle cartridge. Because of this, they are the ones highly preferred by tattoo collectors. (See Kornberg School of Dentistry’s online database for types of various dental pluggers).
Bonwill was fully aware his invention was transferable for some other fields. As 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 on the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine was found 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) -another 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 considered that Edison stumbled about the idea for the handheld stencil pen while experimenting with telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible 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 The Story from the Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had recently 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 focus on their various handheld devices until July of 1875. (It was a wide range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in the uk (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).