Tattooing has been practiced for hundreds of years. A tattoo was first created by an early tool at Abydos in Egypt, dating back to 3000 BC, by archaeologist W. M. F. Petrie. Petrie later found a set of bronze instruments resembling wide, flat needles fixed inside a wooden handle, as well as a sharp point, fixed inside a wooden handle. If the needles were tied together, they would create patterns of multiple dots. Mummified human remains with tattoos demonstrate how these instruments were used to create permanent markings on skin by hand.
In 1876, an inventor you may recognize from your youth—Thomas A. Edison—patented the electric pen, a machine that used a stencil to make multiple copies of a document. The electric motor in this system was one of the earliest applications in consumer goods. In this case, the motor was mounted on the stem and the needle was driven up and down the shaft of the pen. As a roller squeezed ink through the stencil holes, a copy of the document was created. The stencil was then placed in the press.
It was intended to create multiple copies of a single image or text by passing an inked roller over a stencil, which moved at a speed of 50 punctures per second, which allowed the contents of the stencil to be transferred to a sheet of paper below.
Despite Edison’s electric pen being a successful product, reaching markets across the US and internationally, other mechanical pens that didn’t require batteries were able to compete with it (Edison’s pen was powered by acid batteries). It seemed like this particular invention was at the end of its usefulness.
Edison, as was his style, submitted a patent for improvements to the pen in 1877.
However, the battery requirement limited the design, as it could not compete with non-electric, mechanical pens or with the growing popularity of the typewriter. The pen initially proved successful, winning a bronze medal at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Charles Dodgson, also known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, was among the early adopters of the pen and officially endorsed it in 1877. A number of his private writings are known to have been done with the pen, including Memoria Technica for Numbers, his mnemonic document.
Although Edison’s agent in London wrote that “The day for the Electric Pen has passed” in 1880, despite the likelihood of over 60,000 electric pens being sold, Edison abandoned the idea.
However, this was not the end of the electric pen…
Albert Blake Dick and Edison worked together in 1887 to develop the “mimeograph”, a copying device that made use of the electric pen’s flatbed duplicating press, but no electric pen was included in this product.
During the 1960s, this version of Edison’s invention remained popular until modern photocopiers made it obsolete. As an inventor, Edison allowed his name to be used to market his products, showing the power of his fame and popularity.
As a tool for copying, the electric pen itself has faded into obscurity, but its design has been preserved in an unexpected way.
Thanks to Irish-American tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly, the electric pen had a second life in the 1890s when he converted it into the first electric tattoo needle. Patent number 464,801 was issued to O’Reilly on 8 December 1891 for his tattoo machine that punctured the skin and injected ink fifty times in a second, forever changing the tattoo industry. The papers filed alongside the patent explain that Edison’s original invention has been modified for use in this device. Tattoo machines are machines that apply tattoo ink to the skin as they penetrate it using needles that are dipped in ink collected in a reservoir. An interesting feature of the machine was that one or five needles could be held simultaneously. This meant that artists were able to create broader lines when needed.
Although O’Reilly’s regulated rotary motor machines are still used in the modern field of tattooing, most of the machines are powered by electromagnetic coils, such as the one created by New York City artist Charles Wagner, who received a US patent for his machine in 1904. A collection of small needles is moved up and down by both rotary and coil machines, puncturing the dermis (second layer of skin) and inserting drops of ink between fifty and 3,000 times per minute. By varying the spacing between needles, you can create different effects on the skin; if they’re packed close together, they make solid lines on the skin; if they’re spread apart, they create shading or coloring effects. Throughout history, artists have continually modified and innovated their own machines to suit their needs.
It is now widely acknowledged that tattooing was revolutionized by the tattoo machine and that it made tattooing considerably easier. A lot of people traveled from all over the country to see O’Reilly tattoo with his machine and to build their own. In a short period of time, O’Reilly’s machine became the standard for tattoo artists. Despite the tattoo machine being patented, O’Reilly did not make any money off of his invention. Until his death in 1908, he continued to tattoo out of a store in New York City.
Since the machine was invented 120 years ago, it hasn’t changed very much. In comparison to O’Reilly’s machine, the machines artists are using today differ only slightly, but they represent more than a century of fine tuning. Adaptations to the machines are always being made by artists so they can make the best art possible, and this will become passed on to the next generation as new machines are produced.