In relation to tattoo machine history, we have been greatly indebted for the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the building blocks together with his excellent patent research as well as the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled through the years. The same applies to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A huge thank you arrives everyone who has included with the pool of knowledge.
I would personally want to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supply in my opinion, along with, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for input. I might additionally love 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 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 very likely to forever elude definitive documentation. Please keep in mind, this piece is not 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, and so the history may 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 in a more modern age.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. But it falls short of the larger picture. As we’re planning to learn here, the story of how the electrical tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. It has a good number of 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, in addition to his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record being a tattoo artist until 1888, by then he’d made a name around the New York Bowery because the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a couple of years later -in 1891 -he secured the initial 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 managed to make it 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. The truth is, so evident was the tattooing potential of his inventions, it absolutely was 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 to the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent might be turned into a tattooing machine with just a couple 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 after a power tattoo machine was envisioned, it had been only an issue of time before one is made. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions just yet. As it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were working together with needle cartridge this early on. Up until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
That being said, electric tattooing did not begin with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was actually introduced no less than several years prior. The latter one half of the 1880s seemed to be the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing as being a more modern phenomenon then and other reports show substantial progression from that period forward.
Accessibility was without doubt a major factor. This period was marked from a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. Through the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, and a greater range of electrically driven appliances became accessible to most people. As advertised in an 1887 promotional article for the electrical exhibition in The Big Apple, an upward of 10,000 electric devices ended up being introduced considering that 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 in an 1897 interview that he or she 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 about the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan made a sensation around 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 gathered electric tattooing within this period at the same time. Through the entire 1880s, Williams performed on the United States 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 method to England, where he awed museum audiences by tattooing his wife, Madame Ondena, on stage using a “new method” he said was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of New York.” Since he assured in 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 turn into a trend in the united states. In January of 1891 -six months before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the brand new York Dramatic Mirror printed the next:
“What is announced since the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is definitely the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Once we could also consider the New York Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway among the dime show crowd. In March of 1891 -still months prior to O’Reilly’s patent submission in July -the Herald reported that tattooed performers had become quite plentiful, because of the introduction of electric tattoo machines.
Even wording of O’Reilly’s patent application -he had invented “new and useful Improvements in Tattooing-Machines” -suggests electric tattoo machines had been utilized. The question is ….. what kinds of machines were tattoo artists working with?
This really is probably the biggest revelation. The Edison pen probably wasn’t the very first or only go-to device. O’Reilly’s first pre-patent machine was not an Edison pen. It had been a modified dental plugger (also known as a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion accustomed to impact gold in cavities. A reporter for that Omaha Herald wrote regarding this in June of 1890, describing it as “…a little electric machine, which caused a small cable of woven wire to revolve something from the manner of a drill which dentists use within excavating cavities in teeth…” Much like Edison’s stencil pen, various dental pluggers were invented inside the 1800s which can be thought to are already 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 initial 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 any telegraph machine operational. His first couple of patents were filed in 1871 (issued October 15, 1878 -US Patent 209,006) and 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, along with a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders with his invention. His goal ended up being to style a system “manipulated as readily since the usual hand tools,” aimed toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in considering the model of the frame, the body weight from the machine, along with its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement in the coils with regards to the frame, armature, and handle. At the same time, he also greatly improved upon both the electro-magnet and armature.
Much like most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But as the first electrically operated handheld implement, it absolutely was an outstanding breakthrough -for several fields. It was actually so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the best honor in the Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around once as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines and his awesome ideas were exposed to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers as being the first truly “practicable model”).
In accordance with 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 earth, 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, considering the description in the visible coils on O’Reilly’s machine, there’s little chance 20dexmpky was adapted from anything aside from the Bonwill or Green model, or even a like machine. It only makes sense. The engineering of these kinds of dental pluggers was most just like needle cartridge. That is why, they are the people highly preferred 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. As he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, does apply on the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is essential or can be used as actuating a hammer.” A written report on exhibits in the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine have been employed in dentistry, as a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, as 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) -also a 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 that Edison stumbled around the idea to get a handheld stencil pen while trying out telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible that he was affected by Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences considering that the early 1870s. As noted within his 1874 pamphlet The Story from the Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had already been on trial in dental practices for many years. 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 was a range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in england (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).