Did Edison Unknowingly Inspire The First Tattoo Machine?


When we were kids, we learnt that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, the phonograph, founded the first industrial research lab and a lot more. It seems that Edison unintentionally paved the way for the invention of electro tattoo machines. You read that right, the first tattoo machine was inspired by Thomas Edison’s design of the electric pen!

Did Edison Unknowingly Inspire The First Tattoo Machine?
via Wikimedia Commons, in Public Domain

During those days, it was impossible for someone to make more than one copy of a letter and documents until and unless they hand wrote it. In 1876, Thomas Alva Edison invented the Electric Pen. The electric pen used a small motor to make the needle move up and down the shaft of the pen. The pen would create a stencil that could be copied easily. The Electric pen did not require any ink. It rather created holes in a master form which worked as a stencil. Ink was rolled onto its surface which passed through the holes to make copies on blank sheets. The blank sheets were placed underneath the stencil. Kind of like carbon paper, only without carbon. 

Did Edison Unknowingly Inspire The First Tattoo Machine?
Edison’s electric penz via Spark Museum

When the electric pen came out to the public, it turned out to be a flop. There were only little to no demands. It would have gone to trash completely if it weren’t for Samuel O’ Reilly, the inventor of the tattoo machine. If you look at the blueprints of the electric pen and the tattoo machine, they’ll look very similar. 

Did Edison Unknowingly Inspire The First Tattoo Machine?
O’Reilly, via Wikimedia Commons/Maestro Tattoo

On December 8, 1891, O’Reilly got the patent for a tattoo machine. It was mentioned that the device was a modification of the Electric Pen of Thomas Alva Edison. The machine could hold between one and five needles at the same time, giving artists the ability to create broader lines whenever needed. This tattoo machine sped up the whole process of tattooing by allowing the tattooists to penetrate the skin more than they can do while hand poking. With the method of hand-poking, even the skilled and experienced tattooists could only puncture the skin twice or thrice per second. The first tattoo machine of O’ Reily could perforate the skin upto 50 times per second.

Did Edison Unknowingly Inspire The First Tattoo Machine?
Samuel O’Reilly’s patent of the first tattoo machine

This tattoo machine made a revolutionary change in the tattoo industry and made it much easier for the tattoo artists. It gained popularity quickly, calling people all around the world to visit it. His tattoo machine paved the path for new tattoo machines of other artists. Despite a marvelous invention, O’ Reilly never became rich with the tattoo machine. He continued his tattoo shop until his death in 1908.

Fred Harriso Tattoo Studio(1937), by Ray Olsen, via Wikimedia Commons

But before that, O’Reilly’s fame spread across all the seas and oceans. He was flooded with requests and appointments. Tattoos became more popular and started to get normalized in all the corners of American society. Even the wealthy and popular people requested the inventor for his tattoo service.

Although the classic invention of O’Reilly still used is based on the rotary system, most of the machines that are used today are powered by electromagnetic coils. But that’s a thing of the present. As far as our past is considered, the father of the light bulb unknowingly, and unintentionally, inspired the first tattoo machine!

Read about loved tattoos, their history and their meaning.


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