Tattoo Machine History

Tattoo Machine History

The original tattoo machine was a rotary?!

Tattoo Machine History is a fascinating story. It also includes a couple of contentious points. As I look down at the wireless, digitally controlled device in my hand. I’m amazed that it has comes so far in such a short time. 

Tattoo Machines are very personal things. They are our main tool, the thing we make our art with and our connection with the skin. As we hurtle, ever forward. Making improvements to our machines, the history of the tattoo machine sometimes get forgotten.

Samuel O'Reilly

Tattoo Machine History – Samuel O’Reilly

The electric tattooing machine was officially patented on Dec 8th, 1891 by New York tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly. Little is known about Samuel O’Reilly. Most of what we know about this New York City tattooist comes from newspaper articles and the 1933 book Tattoo, Secrets of a Strange Art by Albert Parry. Neither are the most reliable of sources. O’Reilly’s machine was based on the rotary technology of Thomas Edison‘s autographic printing pen. O’Reilly held the first patent for an electric tattoo machine. But tattoo artists had been experimenting with and modifying a variety of different machines prior to the issuance of the patent.

O’Reilly’s first pre-patent tattoo machine was a modified dental plugger. He used to it to tattoo between the years 1889 and 1891. From the late 1880s on, tattoo machines continually evolved into what we now consider a modern tattoo machine. It is unclear if O’Reilly was able to capitalize on his patent idea. Only one of the machines is known to exist and it is without the unique tube assembly. There is no information on O’Reilly ever selling this machine or operating a supply business.

Sutherland MacDonald

Tattoo Machine History – Sutherland Macdonald

Riley’s greatest rival was Sutherland Macdonald. Like O’Reilly, Macdonald learned tattooing while serving in the British army. Although he later enjoyed the benefit of formal art school training. In 1894, Sutherland Macdonald became the first professional “tattooist” to be registered in the Post Office Directory – the equivalent of today’s Yellow Pages.

As a skilled artist, Macdonald is said to have created the term “tattooist” from the words “tattoo” and “artist”. His intention was to differentiate his services from other more everyday trades such as “bricklayer”. The category was therefore created especially for him and he remained the only entry listed for four years.

A pioneer of the industry, his tattooing process was ahead of his time. Not only did he use an electric tattoo machine, he also printed outlines of tattoos and transferred them onto his client’s skin using ink. In 1894 He was granted a British patent for a tattooing machine (patent #3035), although it may have had too many moving parts to be practical.

However, in an 1895 article “A Chat with a Tattooer” in The Sketch, a reporter described Macdonald’s use of a modern machine for the tattoo outline: “a little instrument [which] makes a somewhat strange whirring noise” and commented that he used it as “easily as an etching pen”.

the original tattoo machine patent
the original tattoo machine

128 Years Later

Fast forward a hundred and something years and there are a lot of machines to choose from. When I’m asked “what machine should I buy” I have to answer ‘it depends’

And it depends on a lot of things.

So the simplest way to find the perfect machine for you is to narrow your choices. Set a basic requirements like size, shape, weight, rotary or coil, traditional or cartridge needles. You should have an idea of these things from your apprenticeship.

Once those criteria are met then. It’s mostly aesthetic – IE; “which one looks like the kind of machine I’d use?” Or ‘feel’ which has nothing to do with any kind of scientific approach it’s entirely unquantifiable.

Take a look at what other artists use. Do they do similar work to you? Try one or two of those machines but remember, you may not tattoo in the same way. Just because it works for someone else it may not work for you.

A convention is a good idea. Here you can actually pick up your chosen machine and get a feel for it. Does it feel ‘right’?

Tattoo Machine History