Backstory aside, it’s clear that inventors like Bonwill, Green, and Edison -who made the extraordinary, inventive leap of converting an electromagnetic coil mechanism in to a practical handheld instrument -greatly influenced the creation of Tattoo Supply. Unnamed others unquestionably played a role at the same time. From the 1870s, electric handheld implements were, since yet, novelties. When tradesman and practitioners began by using these tools inside a professional capacity, they encountered limitations. Efforts to resolve shortcomings resulted in further discovery and innovation. When tattoo artists began modifying the same electric devices for own purposes, it could have produced a completely new wave of findings.
At this stage, the entire array of machines accessible to early tattooers isn’t known. But dental pluggers and Edison’s rotary pen (the sole known Edison pen manufactured) were conceivably towards the top of this list. In a 1898 Ny Sun interview, O’Reilly said he experimented with both before settling on his patent design. Along with his dental plugger machine, he claimed, he could tattoo somebody around in less than about 6 weeks. But there was clearly room for improvement. Discussing the trial-and-error process, he was quoted saying 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 idea, had it patented, and got a skilled mechanic to build the appliance.”
O’Reilly’s patent machine, in essence an Edison pen, was modified by having an ink reservoir, accommodations for more than one needle, as well as a specialized tube assembly system meant to solve the “weakness” issue of his previous machines. Such as the original Edison pen, the reciprocating action of O’Reilly’s machine, was actuated with an eccentric (cam) working on top of the needle bar. But rather than a straight stylus, the tube encasing the needle bar (even the handle) was designed with two 90 degree angles, while the needle bar inside was segmented with pivots. This setup allowed for the lever and fulcrum system that further acted about the lower end of the needle bar and theoretically served to lengthen the stroke/throw of your needle.
As it appears, the patent office didn’t consider O’Reilly’s “improvements” everything innovative. They denied his application initially. Not because his invention was too similar to Edison’s 1876 rotary device, but as it bore likenesses to Augustus C. Carey’s 1884 autographic pen patent (US Patent 304,613). They denied it a 2nd time citing British patent UK 3332 (William Henry Abbott’s sewing machine patent), perhaps owed to the reciprocating needle assembly. Rejection notes clarify that in experience of great britain patent it would not have involved invention to provide an ink reservoir for the Carey pen. (Carey’s patent already included specifications for a type of ink duct).
Due to crossover in invention, O’Reilly were required to revise his claims repeatedly before his patent was granted. This actually happened frequently. Patent law permits inventions based on existing patents. But applicants have to prove their creation is novel and distinct. This could be tricky and may also be one reason a lot of the early tattoo artists didn’t patent their ideas -though for all we know a number of could have tried and failed. (Unfortunately, all pre-1920s abandoned patent applications are already destroyed).
As outlined by legend, twenty days after O’Reilly obtained his rotary patent from the U.S., England’s Tom Riley allegedly obtained a British patent to get a single-coil machine. However, while Riley could possibly have invented such a device, he didn’t patent it. A British patent isn’t on file. Very likely, the tale has been confused through the years. Pat Brooklyn -within his interview with Tom Riley entitled Pictures of the epidermis -discusses a single-coil machine Riley was tattooing within 1903, but doesn’t mention a patent for this machine at all. What he does inform is it: “The electric-needle was invented by Mr. Riley and his cousin, Mr. S.F. O’Riley [sic]…and was patented by them on December 8, 1891, although it has since had several alterations and improvements intended to it.”
Since we know Riley wasn’t O’Reilly’s co-patentee, his claims in this interview were obviously embellished. When the story was printed though, it was actually probably transferred and muddied with each re-telling. It well could possibly have inspired the comments in George Burchett’s Memoirs of your Tattooist; that Riley obtained a British patent on December 28, 1891, which improved on O’Reilly’s patent by having six needles. The 1st British tattoo machine patent was really issued to Sutherland MacDonald on December 29, 1894 (UK 3035) (note the similarity of the month and day with all the alleged Riley patent). Sutherland’s machine was cylindrical shaped together with the needles moving through the core of the electromagnetic coils inside, quite similarly to a few of the cylindrical shaped dental pluggers and perforating pens of the era.
Taking into consideration the problems O’Reilly encountered along with his patent, it’s possible he enlisted help. The patent process entails consulting trusted experts and O’Reilly himself acknowledged that a “skilled mechanic” built his patent model. This may have been the machinist, inventor, and mechanical illusionist from England, named John Feggetter Blake, or “Professor Feggetter” to dime museum audiences. After arriving within the U.S. in 1872, Blake obtained numerous patents for his inventions, the initial as a Three Headed Songstress illusion sponsored by Bunnell’s Dime Museum of brand new York. And, he was accustomed to O’Reilly.
National Archives and Records Administration; Washington, D.C.; Index to Petitions for Naturalizations Filed in Federal, State, and Local Courts in New York, 1792-1906 (M1674); Microfilm Serial: M1674; Microfilm Roll: 14
NARA; Washington, D.C.; Index to Petitions for Naturalizations Filed in Federal, State, and native Courts in New York City, 1792-1906. “40 South” was the area of Edwin Thomas’ tattoo shop before he was imprisoned for shooting his ex-girlfriend in 1890.
Not merely did Blake’s patent lawyers (John Van Santvoord and William Hauff) submit O’Reilly’s initial patent claim in July of 1891, but also, in October, not long after his patent claims were first denied, O’Reilly signed as being a witness on Blake’s naturalization application.
Although we can’t be sure that Blake was involved in the progression of O’Reilly’s invention, it’s striking that a great many of his inventions operated via pivots, levers, and fulcrums, very much like O’Reilly’s tube assembly. Also, inside the years just following O’Reilly’s patent Blake began patenting several electromagnetic contact devices.
Increasing intrigue, Blake was connected with John Williams, the dime show tattooer who claimed both he and O’Reilly discovered a “new method” of tattooing a long period earlier. The two had headlined together in Boston and New York dime museums before Williams left for England.
No matter what the link with these other men, O’Reilly supports the patent. Today, his invention is upheld as the ultimate tattoo machine of their day. Because the product of dedicated trials, O’Reilly’s patent machine significantly contributed to the progress of tattoo machines. And, he certainly deserves the accolades for his efforts, specifically being the first to obtain a patent. But there’s some question whether or not he ever manufactured his invention -on the massive anyway -or whether or not it is at wide spread use at virtually any point.
In 1893, just two years right after the patent was in place, tattoo artist and vaudeville actor Arthur Birchman claimed he owned 2 of O’Reilly’s machines, but because he told the World newspaper reporter there were only “…four in the world, other two getting into the possession of Prof. O’Reilly…”
O’Reilly’s comments in a 1898 The Big Apple Sun interview are equally curious. He stated that he or she had marketed a “smaller form of machine” with a “small scale,” but had only ever sold several of the “he uses himself.”
These snippets infer: (1) that O’Reilly didn’t necessarily produce a large number of the patent machines (2) which he had constructed more than one sort of machine between 1891 and 1898, and (3) how the patent wasn’t the preferred tattooing device all through the 1800s.
The overall implication is that O’Reilly (and other tattoo artists) continued testing different machines and modifications, even after the patent was issued.
Media reports aren’t always reliable, of course. And, we’re definitely missing pieces of the puzzle. But there’s more. Additional evidence corroborates the use of a selection of needle cartridge within this era. So far, neither a working instance of O’Reilly’s patent model, nor an image of just one has surfaced. But a straight-handled adaptation in the Edison pen is depicted in numerous media photos. For several years, this machine has become a way to obtain confusion. The obvious stumper is definitely the missing crooked tube assembly. Ironically, the absence of this feature can be a clue by itself. It indicates there was a different way to render the Edison pen operable for tattooing.
Anyone acquainted with rotary driven machines -of any sort -is aware that proper functioning is contingent together with the cam mechanism. The cam can be a machine part that changes a machine’s motion, usually from rotary motion to reciprocating motion, by working on a follower (i.e. needle/needle bar with a tattoo machine). Cams may be found in varied shapes and sizes. An apt sized/shaped cam is very important to precise control and timing of a machine, and when damaged or changed, can alter the way a device operates. Is it possible, then, that simply altering the cam on Edison’s rotary pen can make it functional for tattooing? All the evidence suggests that it had been a serious section of the solution.
Thomas Edison paid special focus to the cam mechanism on his 1876 rotary pen. The cam was enclosed within a nook at the top of the needle-bar, where the needle bar met the rotating shaft (axis). The rotating shaft (axis) was positioned throughout the direct center of the cam and also the flywheel. As the fly wheel revolved, and turned the rotating shaft, the cam turned from it, causing the needle-bar (follower) to move up and down.
In the text of his 1875 British patent (UK 3762), Edison noted that the cam on his rotary pens could possibly have “one or higher arms” acting upon the needle bar. Each year later, as he patented the rotary pen from the U.S. (US Patent 180,857), he specified that he’d chosen to implement a three pointed-cam (three-armed or triangle-shaped cam), mainly because it gave three all around motions for the needle per revolution, and so more perforations per revolution. Perhaps, after a little experimentation, Edison determined this kind of cam shape best-produced the rapid movement required of his stencil pen. As you may know, it didn’t work for tattooing. In O’Reilly’s words, it absolutely was too “weak” -the stroke/throw of your machine wasn’t of sufficient length -and wasn’t suited for getting ink into the skin.
Contemporary rotary tattoo machines also greatly depend on cam mechanics, but they’re fitted with a round shaped “eccentric cam” with the off-centered pin rather than an armed cam. Many of today’s rotary machines are constructed to put a number of different sized eccentric cams, which adjust the machine’s throw, so it can be used for either outlining or shading or coloring. i.e. larger cams lengthen the throw, smaller ones shorten it. (Note: The terms eccentric and cam are usually used interchangeably).
Did O’Reilly know of the function of the cam? Unfortunately, since O’Reilly’s foremost invention claims were the custom tube assembly and incorporating an ink reservoir, he wasn’t needed to outline the cam or cam mechanism on his patent application. Take note, however, that this cam on O’Reilly’s accompanying diagram is conspicuously diamond-shaped as opposed to three-pointed as on Edison’s rotary. In addition, it seems to be of larger proportion. If O’Reilly’s diagram holds true-to-life, it suggests he was aware to some degree that changing the cam would affect the way the machine operated. Why, then, did he go to the greater extent of devising a complicated tube assembly?
Maybe O’Reilly wasn’t capable of implement a cam that completely solved the adaptability issues from the Edison pen. It’s just as possible the modified tube assembly was meant to make the machine even more functional far beyond a fitting cam. Frustratingly, we’ll probably never know. Whatever the case, it seems that at some time someone (possibly even O’Reilly) did locate a cam (or multiple cams) that worked sufficiently enough for tattooing.
Quite pertinently, each year along with a half following the 1891 patent was in place -in July of 1893 -the Boston Herald published articles about Captain Fred McKay of Boston, and distinctly described his tattoo machine as an “Edison electric pen” using a “larger eccentric” to “give the needle more play;” he used this type of machine both for outlining (with one needle) and shading (with seven needles).
Since the article doesn’t illustrate McKay’s machine, we can’t be 100% sure it didn’t include O’Reilly’s specialized tube assembly. However, it’s hard to explain why the Boston Herald reporter will have singled out of the altered cam, a compact tucked away feature, across a large outward modification such as a re-configured tube assembly. Besides, all evidence shows that altering the cam was actually a feasible adaptation; the one that also makes up about the presence of straight-handled Edison pen-tattoo machines. (See postscripts 1 & 2)
Did early tattooers use various different size cams to alter the throw around the Edison pen? Were additional modifications required? Also, would the cam solution are already essentially effective than O’Reilly’s tube assembly system? And which came first? Who is able to say. Something is for sure progression in technology requires ongoing trials -constant tinkering, testing, and sharing of information. Patents are merely one component of the method.
O’Reilly’s patent innovations were important and surely triggered additional experimentation and discoveries. As well, there will need to have been numerous un-patented inventions. It makes sense there were multiple adaptations of your Edison pen (In a March 4, 1898 Jackson Patriot news article, an ex-sailor named Clarence Smith claimed to have adapted the Edison pen for tattooing around 1890 by somehow “shortening the stroke” and “altering the needle”). Early tattooers without doubt constructed a miscellany of machines with diverse modifications, relying on perforating devices, dental drills, engravers, sewing machines, telegraphs, telephones, and a lot of various other devices; some we’ve never seen or find out about and some that worked much better than others.
While care should be taken with media reports, the consistent utilization of the word “hammer” from the article invokes something aside from an Edison pen; a dental plugger aka dental hammer is the thing that one thinks of. (A getaway hammer’s pivoting hammer arm shares an uncanny resemblance using the like part on a dental plugger). That O’Reilly might have been tattooing by using a dental plugger even though his patent was in place is not really so farfetched. The device he’s holding from the image seen here in this 1901 article looks suspiciously like a dental plugger.
One more report in a 1897 Nebraska Journal article, described O’Reilly outlining tattoos by using a “stylus having a small battery about the end,” and setting up color with a similar, but smaller, machine using more needles. This content is not going to specify what forms of machines these were, even though word “stylus” implies a straight-handled device. Also, the fact that they differed in dimensions, indicates they probably weren’t Edison pens, which in terms of we know arrived in one standard size.
The same article continues to clarify O’Reilly’s shading machine, which operated by clockwork as opposed to electricity. It had fifty needles and was “actuated by way of a heavy [clockwork] spring.” This machine may be the one depicted inside a September 11, 1898 Chicago Tribune illustration of O’Reilly tattooing dogs. It looks similar to other perforator pens of the era, a great example being the pattern making device patented by British sewing machine manufacturers Wilson, Hansen, and Treinan (UK 5009)December 7, 1878. This device experienced a end up mechanism similar to a clock and is said to have been modified for tattooing.
1899 Ev’ry Month Magazine. Another unique machine appears in an 1899 Ev’ry Month Magazine article about O’Reilly, England’s Sutherland McDonald, and Japan’s Hori Chiyo. The author of the article, however, didn’t offer specifics for this device.
Another unique machine appears in an October 1899 Ev’ry Month Magazine article about O’Reilly, England’s Sutherland McDonald, and Japan’s Hori Chiyo. The author from the article, however, didn’t offer specifics for this device.
An innovator of the era, who never obtained a patent for his invention, was “Electric” Elmer Getchell (1863-1940), a longstanding tattoo artist from Boston. Getchell’s descendants say he was “scholarly” and “a jack of most trades,” skilled as being a steamboat captain, horseshoer, chemist, and water color artist. Family lore also says he was the inventor from the present day electric tattoo machine.
In the Spanish American war Getchell partnered with O’Reilly in their New York Bowery shop at 5 Chatham Square. Ultimately, that they had a falling out. In accordance with documents from the Usa District Court for that Southern District of brand new York, in April of 1899, O’Reilly filed charges against Getchell, claiming that he had infringed on his patent by selling machines made according to the patent “within the district of Massachusetts and elsewhere,” and this he was “threatening to create the aforesaid tattooing machines in big amounts, and to provide the market therewith and to sell the same…” Getchell then hired an attorney and moved completely to another shop down the street at 11 Chatham Square.
In the rebuttal testimony, Getchell clarified that his tattoo machine had not been made “employing or containing any area of the said alleged invention [patent].” He further proclaimed that O’Reilly didn’t make use of the patent machine, because it was “impractical, inoperative, and wholly useless.” Most significantly, he maintained the reasons for O’Reilly’s machines was, the simple truth is, created by Thomas Edison.
The last a part of Getchell’s argument held particular weight. When he had likely borrowed ideas from other devices to produce his machine, even O’Reilly’s (i.e. an ink reservoir), he only needed to demonstrate the novelty of his invention, just like O’Reilly had finished with his patent. Being an aside, Getchell called upon patent expert Octavius Knight to testify within the case. Court documents do not specify whether Knight ever took the stand, but concerning the time he was anticipated to appear, the truth was dropped.
So what was Getchell’s invention? Court papers refer to a pair of Getchell’s machines, Exhibit A, the device he was currently using, and Exhibit C, a piece of equipment he’d supposedly invented in prior years. Unfortunately, neither is illustrated in almost any detail. Tattoo artist Lew Alberts (1880-1954) described Getchell’s invention as a “vibrator” within a 1926 interview together with the Winston-Salem Journal, that he differentiated from O’Reilly’s “electric needle.” The expression “vibrator” infers that Getchell’s machine operated by means of a vibrating electromagnetic motor. (Edison referenced his electromagnetic stencil pen as a “vibrator.”)
Alberts’ description isn’t specific and may have referenced a number of electromagnetic devices. But a grainy picture of Getchell’s machine within a 1902 New York Tribune article looks like a current day tattoo machine, including an L-shaped frame and dual front-to-back (in accordance with the frame) electromagnetic coils.
A clearer duplicate of the image seen below -which once hung in the tattoo shop of famous Norfolk, Virginia tattoo artist “Cap” Coleman and is also now housed from the Tattoo Archive -settles any uncertainty on the matter. Getchell’s machine was absolutely of contemporary day build.
Evidently, Getchell have been using this particular machine for a while. The 1902 New York Tribune article reported that he had invented it “a number of years” prior, inferably around the time O’Reilly brought charges against him. Maybe even earlier. As noted, O’Reilly claimed Getchell had made and sold his machines “within the district of Massachusetts.” It’s quite likely that Getchell had invented the device under consideration before he permanently left his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts in 1897.
It’s well established that modern tattoo machines are based on vibrating bell mechanisms -operated by two electromagnetic coils, which actuate the vibrating motion of your armature so therefore the reciprocating motion of the needle. Specifically, the type together with the armature arranged with all the coils. Vibrating bell mechanisms were quite powerful, ingeniously streamlined constructions used in various alarms, annunciators, indicators, and doorbells from your mid-1800s on. If it was actually Getchell or somebody else, who once again, made the intuitive leap of transforming a stand alone electromagnetic mechanism in a handheld device, the bell tattoo machine had irrefutably taken hold with the turn from the century. Numerous period photos have turned up depicting quite modern looking machines.
We may never understand the precise date the 1st bell tattoo machine was developed. But it’s possible their seemingly sudden popularity is linked to the emergence of mail order catalogs responsible for bringing affordable technology for the door of your average citizen in the late 1800s. Sears Roebuck and several other retailers set the trend after they began offering a wide array of merchandise through mail order; the assortment of electric bells (i.e. alarms, annunciators, and doorbells), batteries, wiring, et cetera could have provided a multiplicity of inspiration for tattoo artists.
Interestingly, the catalogs marketed some kinds of bells (particularly doorbells) as outfits, on account of insufficient electrical wiring generally in most homes and buildings. They consisted of a battery, wiring, and either a nickel or wood box encasing. There’s something being said for the point that tattoo machines were also later sold as “outfits,” including batteries and wiring. (In England, on March 24, 1900, Alfred South of England actually received a patent for a tattoo machine based on a doorbell mechanism (UK 13,359). In addition, it included the doorbell encasing).
However tinkering tattoo artists were introduced to bells, the invention led the right way to a completely new field of innovation. With so much variety in bells and also the versatility of their movable parts, tattoo artists could try countless inventive combinations, good to go to work upon an excpetionally reliable mechanism.
Bell mechanisms were typically placed on a wood or metal base, so they are often held on a wall. Its not all, however, many, were also fitted within a frame that was designed to keep working parts properly aligned inspite of the constant jarring in the bell. With minor modification a bell mechanism, especially those using a frame, could be removed from the wood or metal base and transformed into a tattoo machine; i.e. adding a needle bar, tube, as well as a tube holder (vice) of some type.
The overall consensus is the fact that earliest bell tattoo machines were built up/modified bell mechanisms, with additional parts, like the tube and/or vice, welded or screwed on. Later, as tattoo machines evolved, frames were cast from customized intact molds, then assembled by adding the adjustable parts; i.e. the armature, coils, needle bar, armature springs, binding posts, contacts, etc.
One specific bell set up provided the framework of any tattoo machine style known today being a “classic single-upright” -a machine having an L-shaped frame, an upright bar using one side and a short “shelf” extending from your back side.
Machines with left-side uprights are known as left-handed machines. Machines with right-side uprights are termed as right-handed machines. (It has nothing to do with whether the tattoo artist remains-handed or right-handed).su4
It’s generally believed left-handed machines came first, for the reason that frame is similar to typical bell frames from the era. Right-handed machines, which eventually won out over left-handed machines, are viewed to obtain come along around or after the 1910s. However, as evidenced from the Getchell photo, right-handed tattoo machines were made at a significantly early date.
That’s its not all. The reason why right-handed tattoo machines are believed to have come later is that they are considered spin-offs of left-handed machines, the assumption being the right side upright was really a never-before-seen innovation implemented by an experimenting tattoo artist. (i.e. a frame casting mold was “invented” that positioned the upright on the right side rather than left side). Mainly because it ends up, bell frames with right side uprights existed alongside their left-sided counterparts. Though they seem to have been rarer, they adequately may have provided the inspiration for right-handed tattoo machines.
You will find far too many bell-influenced adaptations to outline in the following paragraphs. But one prominent example is the back return spring assembly modification which includes often been implemented in needle cartridge over the years. On bells -without or with a frame -this setup includes lengthened armature, or perhaps an extra steel pivoting piece, extended past the top back portion of the armature. The armature or pivoting piece is steadied by two screws in a pivot point, then this return spring is attached with the backmost end and anchored to bolt below. As outlined by one catalog description, these bells produced “a powerful blow” ideal for an alarm or railroad signal.
The set up on tattoo machines is similar, except a rubberband might be used as opposed to a return spring. Basically, a rubberband or return spring is connected to the top, backmost component of a lengthened armature then secured to a modified, lengthened post in the bottom end of the frame. The rear return spring essentially regulates tension and proper functioning, exactly like your back armature spring on modern tattoo machines. (An illustration of Walter Cleveland’s c. 1920s to 1940s version of this kind of machine can be viewed within the Tattoo Archive’s online shop here).
The pivoting armature-return spring put in place may have been first implemented at an early date. Notably, bells using the corresponding structure were sold by businesses like Vallee Bros. and Stanley & Patterson and Company inside the mid-to-late 1890s.
Charlie Wagner implemented a variation with this idea in his 1904 patent machine (US Patent 768,413). His version contained a prolonged pivoting piece coupled to the armature 20dexmpky bent downward at the 90 degree angle off the rear of the machine frame; the return spring was connected horizontally, between your bent down arm and also the machine, as opposed to vertically.
The pivoting armature-return spring setup actually goes back much further. It had been a significant component of a number of the early 1800s telegraph relay systems (though in telegraphs, the coils, armature, and return spring were positioned differently). To emphasize simply how much overlap there is certainly in invention, both W.G.A. Bonwill’s twin-coiled dental plugger patents (along with the improved, manufactured model) employed variants on this create. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. In the end, Bonwill was inspired through the telegraph.