Tattoo machines have changed dramatically since the first electric machine was patented 130 years ago. We thought it would be fun to share some of the history of tattooing with you with a walk down tattoo memory lane.

  • In 1891, the first electric tattoo machine was invented and patented by tattoo artist, Samuel O’Reilly. Previous to his invention, O’Reilly and other artists of the time tattooed with a set of needles that were attached to a wooden handle. The tattooist would dip the set of needles into ink and then move their hand up and down very quickly, so it punctured the skin. This method was very time consuming and tedious for both the tattoo collector and the artist.


  • Having been a mechanic earlier in his life, O’Reilly understood much about the components of machines and realized that there must be an easier way to tattoo if he could build a device that used the same motion as the up-and-down rhythm method he had been employing. After learning of an engraving contraption built by another revolutionary inventor, Samuel got to work and built upon the idea.


  • This device he had discovered was called the “Electric Pen” and had been invented by Thomas A. Edison in 1876. The Electric Pen was part of a document duplication system used by businesses and used a high-speed reciprocating motor to drive a single needle.


  • The Electric Pen did not use any ink, rather, perforated holes in a master form, of which then became a stencil. Ink rolled onto its surface and passed through the holes to make copies onto blank sheets placed underneath the stencil.


  • O’Reilly took this invention, added multiple needles and an ink reservoir, and earned a U.S. patent. This revolutionary device was extremely innovative in opening the door to a whole new generation of growth in the tattoo realm.


  • In 1929, Percy Waters patented a new design which closely resembles the modern-day tattoo machine. His machine included two electromagnetic coils that were set parallel with the frame, a spark shield and an on/off switch.


  • Waters was a successful tattoo artist in Detroit, Michigan, where he also ran a tattoo supply company for nearly thirty years. He produced classically noted flash sets and tattooed many well-known tattoo collectors during that era. He was initiated into the Tattoo Hall of Fame on January 15, 1987.


  • Jump ahead fifty years and the next tattoo machine patent by Carol Nightingale was issued in 1979 in Washington D.C. His design was quite involved and intricate compared to the earlier models, and included front and rear spring apertures, adjustable coils, and leaf springs that were different lengths.


The tattoo machine has seen many changes in the hundred years since the early days when Edison’s electric pen grabbed the attention of Samuel O’Reilly. This evolution continues through the present day, where innovations are revolutionizing the tattooing industry and enabling modern day tattooists with essential tools of the trade.

Different styles, shapes and types of machines work for different artists. Each has their own preference and requirements for which machine is ideal for their type of work and style. As we watch the rapid progression of body art, it’s exciting to watch the changes in machines and their capabilities as well. If he could see the advancements in today’s tattooing tools, Samuel O’Reilly would most certainly be proud.

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