In 1891, the first electric tattoo machine was patented by tattoo artist, Samuel O’Reilly that made tattoo machine history.
The first electric machines invented that was the influence for tattoo machine builders to build the first tattoo machines from tattoo machine history are.
W.G.A. Bonwill in Feb 27 1867 invented the dental plugger (aka dental mallet, dental hammer) Dental pluggers were two-coiled electromagnetically operated devices with reciprocating action intended for packing cavities.
His first patent was on November 14, 1871. Granted October 15, 1878.
Another predecessor to the tattoo machine was the electric pen invented by Thomas Alva Edison and patented under the title Stencil-Pens in Newark, New Jersey, United States in 1876. U.S. Patent 196,747, Stencil-Pens
This patent was for a rotary type electromagnetic machine that was battery powered.
The Electric Pen did not use any ink, rather, it poked perforated holes in a master form paper, of which then became a stencil. Ink rolled onto its surface with a roller, passed through the holes to make copies onto blank sheets of paper placed underneath the stencil.
The 1877 patent was for a two electromagnetic coil device with the coils set transversely to the tube assembly. A flexible reed vibrated over these coils and created the reciprocating motion needed to make the stencil.
Edison Stencil 1877
Tattoo Machine Builders and Patents:
In 1889/1890 Sam O’Reilly stated that his first electric tattoo machine (before his patent) was a modified electric dental plugger. likely the machine he used to tattoo some of the first electrically tattooed dime museum attractions.
In an 1898 New York Sun Interview, O’Reilly said he first tried the dental plugger, then an Edison pen, but each was “too weak” finally, after many trials, he “made a model after his own idea, had it patented, and got a skilled mechanic to build the machine.”
It is told that even in 1884, O’Reilly was reported to have a painless electrical tattoo gadget.
Samuel OReilly patent drawing
O’Reilly’s patent machine, based on Thomas Edison’s 1876 stencil pen patent, was modified by adding an ink reservoir, accommodations for more than one needle and a specialized tube assembly.
On December 8, 1891, Sam O’Reilly patented his hybrid rotary-electromagnetic tattoo machine patent,which made tattoo machine history.
O’Reilly said he had a “skilled mechanic” build his patent model. This might have been the machinist, inventor, and mechanical illusionist from England, named John Feggetter Blake, or “Professor Feggetter” to dime museum audiences.
It is not sure that Blake was in fact involved in the development of O’Reilly’s invention or not.
While O’Reilly’s machine was based on the tattoo rotary technology of Edison’s device, most modern tattoo machines use electromagnets. It is said that the first machine based on this technology was a single coil machine patented by Thomas Riley of London, just twenty days after O’Reilly filed the patent for his rotary machine.
However, while Riley could have invented such a device, he didn’t patent it. A British patent isn’t on file.
The first British tattoo machine patent was actually issued to Sutherland MacDonald on December 29, 1894 (UK 3035).
Sutherland’s machine was cylindrical shaped with the needles moving through the core of the electromagnetic coils inside, quite similarly to some of the cylindrical shaped dental pluggers and perforating pens of the era.
It is said that George Burchett bought his first electric tattoo machine from Thomas Riley and used it in his Mile End tattoo shop at the turn of the 20th century with great success. Later he improved the design (Patented London Dec. 13th 1904) to include a switch to stop the machine when changing colors.
Alfred Charles South
The first twin coil machine, the predecessor of the modern configuration, was invented by Alfred Charles South of Cockspur St. London (Patented London Jun. 30th 1899).
His construction was also based on a door bell assembly in a plate steel box with brass slabs attached to each side. It was heavy and was often used with a spring attached to the top of the machine and to the ceiling to take most of the weight off the operators hand.
Alfred Charles South patent 1899