With regards to tattoo machine history, we are greatly indebted towards the Tattoo Archive’s Chuck Eldridge for laying the cornerstone with his excellent patent research and the numerous tattoo machine charts and booklets he’s compiled through the years. Exactly the same relates to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A big thanks a lot is due everyone that has added to the pool of information.
I would personally want to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Supplies if you ask me, as well as, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for input. I would personally additionally love to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the facets of this informative article for many 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 a shaky research subject likely to forever elude definitive documentation. Please bear in mind, 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, and so the history can 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 a more modern age.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. However it falls short of the bigger picture. As we’re planning to learn here, the storyline of how the electrical tattoo machine came into existence isn’t that straightforward. It offers quite a few twists and turns.
Samuel F. O’Reilly (1854-1909) is the usual character that comes to mind when speaking of early tattoo machines. O’Reilly came to be 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 created a name about the The Big Apple Bowery as being the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a few years later -in 1891 -he secured the very first tattoo machine patent according to Thomas Edison’s 1876 rotary operated stencil pen patent (technically a rotary-electromagnetic coil hybrid).
The Edison pen was 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 inside the 1870s that might have been adapted for tattooing had they been manufactured. In reality, so evident was the tattooing potential of his inventions, it was recognized almost right from the start.
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 the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent could be turned into a tattooing machine with just a couple of 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 electric tattoo machine was envisioned, it absolutely was only a matter of time before one was created. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions yet. As it stands now, there’s no proof tattooers were working with Round Liner HOLLOW this early on. Until the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
With that being said, electric tattooing did not start with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was introduced a minimum of many years prior. The second one half of the 1880s might have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing being a more modern phenomenon then and other reports show substantial progression from that point forward.
Accessibility was certainly an important 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, plus a greater variety of electrically driven appliances became open to most people. As advertised in a 1887 promotional article for the electrical exhibition in Ny City, an upward of ten thousand electric devices ended up being introduced since the last show in 1884, including anything from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for a variety of arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed in an 1897 interview 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 in the horizon. In 1889 and 1891 respectively, purported O’Reilly creations Tom Sidonia and George Mellivan produced 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 gathered electric tattooing within this period also. Through the entire 1880s, Williams performed on america dime show circuit at venues such as 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 strategy to England, where he awed museum audiences by tattooing his wife, Madame Ondena, on stage having a “new method” he said was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of brand new York.” While he assured in the 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 seem to have become a trend in the usa. In January of 1891 -six months time before O’Reilly requested his patent -the New York Dramatic Mirror printed the subsequent:
“What is announced as being the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man will be the latest novelty in freakdom.”
Whenever we can also take the Ny Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway one of the 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, because of the introduction of electric tattoo machines.
Even 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 already been used. Now you ask , ….. what sorts of machines were tattoo artists working together with?
This can be maybe the biggest revelation. The Edison pen probably wasn’t the initial 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 referred to as a mallet or hammer) -a handheld tool with reciprocating motion utilized to impact gold in cavities. A reporter for that Omaha Herald wrote about this in June of 1890, describing it as being “…a little electric machine, which caused a little cable of woven wire to revolve something in the manner 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 are believed to have already been modified for tattooing. Several such dental pluggers are archived in modern day 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 also in so doing, the 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 functioning. His first 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 way of two vertically-positioned electromagnetic coils; except offset through the frame. Extra features were stroke adjustment, an on/off slider, plus a stabilizing finger slot.
Bonwill achieved wonders along with his invention. His goal have been to style a system “manipulated as readily as the usual hand tools,” geared toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in considering the form of the frame, the load from the machine, and its particular mechanical efficiency, via size and placement of the coils with regards to the frame, armature, and handle. At the same time, also, he greatly improved upon both electro-magnet and armature.
As with most newborn inventions, Bonwill’s machine wasn’t perfect. It underwent many immediate improvements. But since the first electrically operated handheld implement, it was actually an outstanding breakthrough -for several fields. It absolutely was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the very best honor of 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 because 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,” within the mid-1870s to mid-1880s period. S.S. White, then the largest dental manufacturing company on the planet, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, like the G.F. Green version. Although cylindrical shaped (with a spring coil in the core ) and rotary operated dental pluggers later came into play, due to the description from the 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 is a good idea. The engineering of most of these dental pluggers was most just like Round Liner HOLLOW. For this reason, they are actually the people highly popular by tattoo collectors. (See Kornberg School of Dentistry’s online database for samples of various dental pluggers).
Bonwill was fully aware his invention was transferable to other fields. While he boldly asserted in patent text, “My improved instrument, although especially adapted for tooth filling, does apply to the arts generally, wherever power by electricity is required or can be used as actuating a hammer.” A report on exhibits in the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine have been used in dentistry, being a sculpting device, an engraving device, and notably, as being an autographic pen.
Interestingly, years earlier inside 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 definitely 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 for a handheld stencil pen while trying out telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible he was affected by Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences ever since the early 1870s. As noted within his 1874 pamphlet A History of your Electro-magnetic Mallet, a prototype had recently 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 with their various handheld devices until July of 1875. (This was a range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in britain (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).