The origin of the tattoo machine is closely connected with the invention of electric motor. Electric motor was a revolutionary breakthrough not only in electrical engineering, it promised a variety of domestic applications that had to improve and make the mode of life easier and more convenient. As for the first electrical tattooing device, its destiny was determined with the invention of Autographic printing pen by Tomas Alva Edison in 1876 (U.S. Patent No. 196747, 1877). The device was designed to provide easier printing and copying and consisted of an electric motor that moved a steel thick needle up and down which aim was to puncture holes in the stencil that will be then pressed with a certain amount of ink on it onto a sheet of paper. The construction was revolutionary in many respects, however due to its size and weight made continuous operation impossible. Next version of the device was based on two electromagnetic coils, springs and contact bars, which tangibly contributed to the weight decrease. In the following years Edison worked out a several concepts of the device where he reviewed the source of power in search of even greater weight decrease and ease of operation, among them were similar machines powered by external battery, driven by physical effort of the operator similarly as pedal sewing machines and even pneumatic-based models. However, it was the electromagnetic coil based Edison’s Perforating Pen that inspired tattooers to create the tool for their needs.
It is commonly believed that the person responsible for the invention of the tattoo machine based on Edison’s Perforating Pen was Samuel O’Reilly, however this fact remains disputable by virtue of the deliberatively maintained archives of New York City that can shed a light on the issue. First, would be required to notice that O’Reilly himself was a tattoo artist, running tattoo cabinet by the address of Chatham Square,5 as listed in 1898 Trow Business Directory (Roe 2014). But to track the story of the most important invention in the history of tattooing – the machine – it will be required to investigate deeper O’Reilly’s personal biography. First of all, it is quite probable that even the very idea of using Edison’s perforating pen for tattooing was not quite O’Reilly’s. In the year 1876 in Brooklyn Eagle there appeared an article about unusual use of Edison’s copying invention that in the article was referred as “teletattoograph” (Roe 2014). Two months after the article is published Samuel O’Reilly travels to Connecticut, where his two brothers lived, and one of them, Tomas, was a brass mill worker. Soon after arrival to Connecticut Samuel O’Reilly is put in jail for a robbery for 5 years, which he might have spent tattooing other convicts. After his release in 1884 he reappeared in official listings of New York, but now together with his brothers, as in 1886 service list they appear as “operator” (Samuel), “polisher” (John) and third brother Thomas with no specialization living at 65 Bond Street in Brooklyn. This is the last time Samuel O’Reilly was listed in the Directory before his abovementioned appear Trow Business Directory in 1898 (Roe 2014). However for the years of being not-listed in the Directory evidences of O’Reilly’s obsession about electric tattooing device can be found.
A newspaper article dated by 1890 shows O’Reilly demonstrating a modified dental drill to the reporter as the most modern instrument for tattooing and in this way proving the dominance of America in this craft. This article was published in the same year when O’Reilly himself gave the first tattoo with the help of electricity, however the patent for O’Reilly’s electric tattoo machine was filed only the following year, so it might be the modified drill to serve as the first electric tattoo tool. However bright O’Reilly’s expectations about patenting first Tattoo Machine were, his application was rejected after three months of reviewing. The reason served another patent for Carey’s Autographic Printing device of 1884 which was recognized to be the same as of O’Reilly. This decision of the commission was soon disputed by O’Reilly’s lawyer, however second attempt was also unsuccessful – the invention was recognized to be the same with Edison’s Engraving Pen of 1876. And only after O’Reilly introduced a number of significant changes into machine’s design the patent commission was satisfied and the patent was granted to the inventor on the 8th of December 1891. Since this invention became official, the craft of tattooing started to evolve rapidly. Electric motor and electric magnet coils provided an opportunity to create devices that improved the daily life of ordinary people and could speed up routine tasks.
One of the first uses of induction magnetic coils was a doorbell. In fact, many of first tattoo machines in Europe were based on the doorbell mechanisms, and first of them was patented in 1891 in London by Tom Riley, only 20 days after O’Reilly received his patent in New York. Another important milestone in tattoo machine development history was the improvement made by George Burchett, who took Riley’s machine and added a switch, which made it possible to stop it when the color pigments had to be changed. First two coiled tattoo machine was created in London as well by Alfred Charles South, who was granted a patent for it in 1899. His tattoo machine, as ones of his predecessor colleagues was based on a doorbell in a steel frame, but had two coils, which made it possible to improve the power of the machine, however increased the weight to such an extent that sometimes South’s machine was operated with a spring attached by one side to the machine and by the other to the ceiling of the studio to remove the load from artist’s hand. First two coiled tattoo machine appeared in America only in 1904 and was patented by Charles Wagner in New York (U.S. Patent No. 768413, 1904). The difference between the “traditional” twin coiled machine and Wagner’s was that in Wagner’s the coils were placed on the both sides of the frame, like in telegraph, which could in fact be seen as another case of adaptation of Edison’s invention (Tattoo Archive 1997).
Taking into account only abovementioned tattoo machine development contributors it can be seen that the industry of the tattooing service first truly entered the realm of manufacturing by the early 1900s. As any other inventors, O’Reilly, Riley, South, Wagner and others sought to utilize their intellectual products and successfully market them, and so tattoo machines, accompanied with inks, designs and manuals were sold as bundles not only to professionals but to the general public as well. This capitalizing hype somewhat ended by 1920s, when the question about the primary goals a tattoo machine has to fulfill was both set and answered by Percy Waters, who designed the first modern tattoo machine on which almost every machine manufactured today is based (Tattoo Archive 2002). Waters’ machine was completely opposite to bulky, heavy, uncomfortable and, what is main, non-configurable devices from 1900s. Water’s machine was designed by professional and for professionals and in fact determined the development of tattoo equipment since present day (DeMello 2007). A great feature that made tattoo artists rethink the concept and use of the machine was the moving contact screw that made it possible to tune the amplitude and speed of the needle and thus vary skin penetration. Another difference of Waters’ machine was the fact that it could have been easily disassembled for cleaning and disinfection. Probably this fact also made it possible for great artists of that time as Owen Jenson, Milton Zeis, and of course Norman Collins to tune and redesign Waters’ machines.