When it comes to tattoo machine history, we have been greatly indebted to the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the basis with his excellent patent research along with the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled through the years. The identical relates to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A major thanks a lot is due everyone that has added to the pool of knowledge.
I might personally prefer to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supplies in my opinion, in addition to, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko with regard to their input. I would additionally love to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the elements of this short article for several years (See related blog here). Digging for information and connecting the dots was actually a painstaking endeavor. Their feedback helped immensely in formulating ideas and tying the pieces together.
Early tattoo machine history is really 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 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 day.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. Nevertheless it falls lacking the bigger picture. As we’re planning to learn here, the story of how the electric tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. They have 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 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, as well as his brothers John and Thomas. Though he isn’t on record as a tattoo artist until 1888, by then he’d made a name around the Ny Bowery because the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a couple of 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 intended for making paper stencils. Its form and performance made it an apt candidate for tattooing. Edison actually patented several stencil pens in 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 was actually recognized almost right from the start.
In 1878, nearly thirteen years before O’Reilly’s patent was in place, an anonymous contributor (alias “Phah Phrah Phresh”) wrote a letter towards the editor in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent may be transformed 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 after an electric powered tattoo machine was envisioned, it was actually only an issue of time before one was developed. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions at this time. Mainly because it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were dealing with needle cartridge this at the beginning. 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 introduced a minimum of a long period prior. The second half of the 1880s seemed to be the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing like a more recent phenomenon then and other reports show substantial progression from that point forward.
Accessibility was undoubtedly a serious factor. This period was marked from a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. From the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, as well as a greater variety of electrically driven appliances became open to the general public. As advertised within an 1887 promotional article for the electrical exhibition in Ny City, an upward of ten thousand electric devices have been introduced considering that the last show in 1884, including everything from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for many different arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed in 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 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 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 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 Ny. 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 stated was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly newest York.” As 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 become a trend in the united states. In January of 1891 -6 months before O’Reilly applied for his patent -the New York Dramatic Mirror printed the next:
“What is announced as being the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man is definitely the latest novelty in freakdom.”
If we also can consider the The Big Apple Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway among the 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, as a result of 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 been used. Now you ask ….. what forms of machines were tattoo artists working with?
This can be 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 was actually a modified dental plugger (also referred to as a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion employed to impact gold in cavities. A reporter for the Omaha Herald wrote regarding this in June of 1890, describing it “…a little electric machine, which caused a tiny cable of woven wire to revolve something in the method of a drill which dentists utilize in excavating cavities in teeth…” Much like Edison’s stencil pen, many different dental pluggers were invented in the 1800s that 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 initial electromagnetically operated dental plugger, as well as in so doing, the initial electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came to be in the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of the telegraph machine in operation. His first two patents were filed in 1871 (issued October 15, 1878 -US Patent 209,006) as well as 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, as well as a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders together with his invention. His goal was to style a system “manipulated as readily as being the usual hand tools,” aimed toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in with the form of the frame, the extra weight of your machine, along with its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of your coils in terms of the frame, armature, and handle. Along the way, also, he 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 being the first electrically operated handheld implement, it absolutely was an outstanding breakthrough -for most fields. It was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the greatest honor of the 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 brought to the dental community years prior. His invention was recognized among peers since 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 worldwide, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, for example 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 in the visible coils on O’Reilly’s machine, there’s little chance 20dexmpky was adapted from anything besides the Bonwill or Green model, or perhaps a like machine. It only is sensible. The engineering of these sorts of dental pluggers was most comparable to Round Liner HOLLOW. For this reason, they happen to be the ones highly sought after 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 to other fields. As 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 study on exhibits on the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine was utilized in dentistry, as a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, as 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 on the idea to get a handheld stencil pen while trying out telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible which he was affected by Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences since the early 1870s. As noted in his 1874 pamphlet The Story of your Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had recently been on trial in dental practices for several years. 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 is a range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in england (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).