Every tattoo wearer has a reason for why they have tattoos. For some, it is a tribute piece. For others it's a way to be outlandish or funny. Still for others the design is completely symbolic and no one else may know what the symbol means. What was your reason? Whatever it was, as you sat there in that parlor … being pricked anywhere from 50 to 3,000 times a minutes, did you ever stop and wonder where the tattoo machine came from? Before its invention, many tattoo artists practiced hand methods that were both slow and painful. As tattooing became more popular, it was evident that something needed to change. One artist who had that realization was New York tattoo guru, Samuel O’Reilly who, in 1891, patented an idea based off Thomas Edison’s engraver. This idea was the Stencil Pen, created in 1876 to copy documents for businessmen. Modifying Edison’s idea, O’Reilly added a tube system to hold ink and adjusted its rotary technology. This started the journey of the tattoo machine, as we know it today!
O’Reilly’s machine ran on rotary technology, similar to Edison’s idea, even though modern day tattoo machines use electromagnetic coils. Only twenty days after O’Reilly patented his idea, Thomas Riley of London was the first person to patent a single coil machine using electromagnets that used a modified doorbell assembly inside a brass box. The first twin coil configuration was later developed by another Englishman, Alfred Charles South, in 1899. His idea alternated electromagnetic coils to move the needle bar up and down while driving ink into the skin. His machine was large and heavy and in order to work, the top of the machine had to be tethered to the ceiling for support and to alleviate weight from the artist’s hand.
Many other people have touched the evolution of the tattoo machine, adding their own flare to the patent. Some can still be seen in modern machines today. In 1929, Percy Waters received the patent on the design to what most people consider a modern day tattoo machine. He added an on/off switch, stroke adjustment and a pin vice type needle bar. For many years, Waters manufactured and sold different types and styles to customers around the globe and was the first to turn his patent into a marketable item.
With all these developments, it would still be a whole 50 years before another patent became mainstream. In 1979, Carol Nightengale from Washington D.C. took a more in-depth approach, adding full adjustability of coils, a back spring mount, leaf springs for different lengths and types of work, as well as an angled armature bar that eliminated the bend in the front spring.
As you can see, for only being around for about one hundred years, the tattoo machine has already gone through some radical changes. All artists modify their machines to fit personal needs … and they’re kind of like snowflakes; no two are ever the same. Today’s tattoo machines likely include a sterilization needle, a tube system to draw ink to the machine, an electronic motor and a foot pedal, which controls the vertical movement of the needle. Already a far cry from Edison’s engraving pen, it’s pretty safe to say that as tattoos continue to become even more popular, the tattoo machine will keep evolving as well!