The history of the modern tattoo machine

The history of the modern tattoo machine

Before Dec. 8th 1891, there were a different methods and techniques, inspired by ancient traditions to make the tattoo but it is always down to one thing – get the ink (or other pigment) under the skin. In this article I’d like to tell you the story of the modern tattoo machine that is well know and used today as main tool from tattoo artists. You may be surprised to hear that it comes in different shapes ad forms, with new more hygiene inventions and add-ons but in its principles the machine is much a like to its original design.

Edison electrical pen

You may not know this but the initial idea that inspired Samuel O’Reilly, was the first application of the electrical engine represented in Edison’s electric pen. Patented in  in the U.S. Aug.8th 1876, this very simple but yet genius tool that using electrical motor to drive a single needle that was piercing а stencil through which ink could be pressed onto a paper below.

It was a revolutionary device but because of its size and weight it was difficult to use for a long time and probably this is why it was improved  by removing the and adding a mechanical treadle mechanism that was similar to the one used in sewing machines.

Exactly this device was the reason for the New York tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly to walk in to supplies store, asking for a demonstration of what he saw in the window.

After a while, adding some minor changes like changing the motor’s position a bit more to the side (that would make the machine a bit more easy to use), the ink tank at the tip of the barrel and a bit broader needle that could accommodate now up to three needles, he patented the first tattoo machine on 8th of Dec 1891.

This invention had changes the tattoo world forever. This very simple but efficient device and the idea of speeding up and electrifying the process of making tattoo would about to change this cultural phenomenon forever.

The other again simple but yet effective mechanism that inspired later designs of the machine was the electrical door bell. It uses the idea of magnetism, electrically induced to provide motion that will ring the bell. The same idea used in the telegraph machines.

On 28th Dec 1891, only several days after Samuel O’Reilly got his patent, Tom Riley patented his electro magnetic tattoo machine that was using a single coil, based on the door bell mechanism put in a brass box. George Burchett included a switch to allow machine to stop when colors had to bee changed.

Again Englishman, Alfred Charles South, patentedin 1899 the first model of tattoo machine with two coils that is in the base of most of the modern designs. The machine back them was so heavy and generated so much fatigue, that often in the tattoo shops there was a springs hanging from the ceilings attached to the tattoo machine in order to offload the hand of the artist a bit.

Alabama, US born Percy Walters established one of the biggest companies for tattoo supplies back then. Forced to leave his hometown, he established himself in Detroit Michigan, where he stayed till late 1930’s. After 20 years in Detroit he went back home in Alabama, where he stayed until his death in 1952. His supplies were widely used around the world, advertised in “men’s magazines” and also in magazines lime Billboard.

For a long time the main differences in tattoo machines designs and patents were the materials used to build the machines and geometry, where in modern tattoo world, the machines are often considered for their specific use – shading and/or coloring and etc. Also there are a lot of materials, designs and geometries and I guess that technological revolution will bring even more options and variations but in general it is all stays pretty much the same.

Hope you had fun.