In terms of tattoo machine history, our company is 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 through the years. A similar pertains to Lyle Tuttle’s insightful write-ups and booklets. A major thanks arrives everyone having added to the pool of knowledge.
I would personally want to thank Shane Enholm for explaining the ins-and-outs of Tattoo Equipment if you ask me, along with, Eddy Svetich, Jim Hawk, and Nick Wasko for input. I would personally additionally prefer to thank Nick Wasko for proofing this write-up. I’ve been gathering information and researching the aspects of this article for a variety 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 more likely to forever elude definitive documentation. Please remember, this piece is not intended to be conclusive or all-encompassing. There’s plenty left to flesh out. Hopefully, the 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 in a more modern age.”
This standard blurb has neatly summarized 1800s American tattoo machine history in countless books and articles. But it really falls lacking the greater picture. As we’re planning to learn here, the story of how the electrical tattoo machine came to be isn’t that straightforward. It provides a good number of 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 was created 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 as a tattoo artist until 1888, at that time he’d made a name about the Ny Bowery as the Chatham Square Museum’s “celebrated tattooer.” Just a couple of 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 actually a handheld, reciprocating, puncturing device designed for making paper stencils. Its form and function caused it to be 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 had been 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 your Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, proposing that Edison’s recently published stencil pen patent may be turned 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-changer. Logic follows that when a power tattoo machine was envisioned, it absolutely was 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 working together with tattoo needle cartridge this in early stages. Before the late 1880s, newspaper reports only reference hand tools.
With that being said, electric tattooing failed to start out with O’Reilly’s 1891 patent either. It was actually introduced a minimum of several years prior. The latter one half of the 1880s could have been the breakthrough period. Existing evidence points to electric tattooing as being a more modern phenomenon then and additional reports show substantial progression from that time forward.
Accessibility was no doubt an important factor. This period was marked by a phase of rapid advancement in electrical apparatuses. By the mid to late 1880s, electric motors had reached phenomenal heights, as well as a greater range of electrically driven appliances became accessible to the general public. As advertised in an 1887 promotional article on an electrical exhibition in New York City, an upward of 10,000 electric devices was introduced ever since the last show in 1884, including anything from small tools and surgical instruments to appliances for many different arts and general conveniences.
O’Reilly confirmed inside 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 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 produced a sensation around 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 picked up electric tattooing in this period also. Through the 1880s, Williams performed on america dime show circuit at venues including the World’s Museum in Boston and Worth’s Museum in The Big Apple. 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 using a “new method” he was quoted saying was discovered by himself and “Prof. O’Reilly of 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 appear to have be a trend in the us. In January of 1891 -6 months before O’Reilly requested his patent -the brand new York Dramatic Mirror printed the following:
“What is announced since the “Kalamazoo electric tattooed man will be the latest novelty in freakdom.”
When we can also use the Ny Herald at its word, electric tattooing was well underway amongst 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 the wording of O’Reilly’s patent application -which he had invented “new and useful Improvements in Tattooing-Machines” -suggests electric tattoo machines had already been in use. The question is ….. what sorts of machines were tattoo artists dealing with?
This is certainly 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 had not been an Edison pen. It was 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 the Omaha Herald wrote regarding this in June of 1890, describing it as a “…a little electric machine, which caused a small cable of woven wire to revolve something in the manner of a drill which dentists use within excavating cavities in teeth…” Just like Edison’s stencil pen, many different dental pluggers were invented in the 1800s which can be considered to are already 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 then in so doing, the very first electrically operated handheld implement. Bonwill’s idea came to be in the late 1860s after observing the electromagnetic coils of the telegraph machine functioning. His first two 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 way of 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 along with his invention. His goal ended up being to style a system “manipulated as readily as being the usual hand tools,” aimed toward optimum handheld functionality. Bonwill took great care in taking into consideration the model of the frame, the weight from the machine, along with its mechanical efficiency, via size and placement from the coils in relation to the frame, armature, and handle. Along the way, also, he greatly improved upon both the electro-magnet and armature.
Just 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 excellent breakthrough -for most fields. It was so exceptional Bonwill was awarded the Cresson Medal, the very best honor of your Franklin Institute of Science. (George F. Green received a patent around once as Bonwill. But Bonwill’s prototype machines and his awesome ideas were introduced to 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,” inside the mid-1870s to mid-1880s period. S.S. White, then your largest dental manufacturing company in the world, manufactured several similar dental pluggers, such as 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 of 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 sorts of dental pluggers was most comparable to tattoo needle cartridge. For that reason, they are generally the ones highly popular 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 with other fields. Because 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 required or can be used actuating a hammer.” A report on exhibits in the Franklin Institute’s 1884 electrical exhibition noted that Bonwill’s machine have been found in dentistry, 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 definitely 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 considered that Edison stumbled on the idea for a handheld stencil pen while trying out telegraphic communication, it’s certainly plausible he was influenced by Bonwill’s invention. Bonwill had displayed his dental plugger at exhibitions and conferences because the early 1870s. As noted in the 1874 pamphlet The Story of 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 is a range of rotary and electromagnetic stencil pens first patented in britain (UK 3762) on October 29, 1875. See Edison papers, Rutgers Museum).