History

Got a Tattoo? Say Thanks to the Electric Tattoo Machine, Patented 120 Years Ago Today

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Samuel F. O'Reilly's electric tattoo machine.

No longer confined to the bodies of sailors or sideshow freaks, tattoos have entered America's cultural mainstream, offering consenting adults the chance to adorn themselves with a permanent mark of rebellion, remembrance, or just plain bad taste. And the electric tattoo machine, originally patented on this day in 1891 by the legendary New York City tattooist and inventor Samuel F. O'Reilly, made it all possible.

Based on the design for Thomas Edison's autographic printer, which was essentially a motorized engraving tool, O'Reilly's invention sped up the process of tattooing while vastly improving the quality of the final product. Prior to his innovation, tattoos were done by hand, usually with a set of needles affixed to a wooden handle. It was slow-going work for even the most skilled practitioner. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, by contrast, O'Reilly reportedly inked upwards of 130 naval reservists in a single day from his small shop at 11 Chatham Square, located at the southern end of New York's famous Bowery.

He broke ground in other ways as well. As the journalist Albert Parry remarked in his 1933 book Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art as Practised among the Natives of the United States, O'Reilly "expanded the choice of materials till it included such old and new stuff as powdered charcoal, finely powdered brick-dust, coal-dust, lamp black, Prussian blue, washing blue, gunpowder, cinnabar, ordinary writing ink, China ink, India ink, and other vegetable inks." O'Reilly also dubbed himself "professor" and took on several apprentices, including future tattoo legend Charlie Wagner, who worked the Bowery until the early 1950s.

Bowery tattoo legend Charlie Wagner, a student of Samuel F. O'Reilly's, circa 1915.

Today, tattooing is a multi-million dollar industry with offshoots in fashion and reality television. The technology may have improved since O'Reilly's time, but artists and collectors alike are still enjoying the benefits of his great invention.

Elsewhere in Reason: Katherine Mangu-Ward on underworld tattoos, Nick Gillespie on the secret life of a human tattoo machine, and yours truly on tattoos and the First Amendment.