The History of the Tattoo Machine


Tattoo machines as we know them today were not always the easy-to-use, sophisticated piece of kit that no tattoo artist can do without. In fact, before the innovation of the tattoo machine, tattoos were done slowly by hand. Ancient cultures used tools like rose thorns, shark’s teeth and pelican bones to push pigment into the skin. The Maori of New Zealand used bone chisels to carve designs straight into the flesh of warriors, and Polynesian artists used a rake-like tool to hold the ink and a hammer to puncture the skin.

Tattoos have existed and been depicted in some shape and form throughout history in practically every culture. But it was one man’s innovative thinking and rehashing of a failed invention that brought tattooing into the modern era with the world’s first handheld tattoo machine.



The Electric Pen

The first attempt at the modern-day tattoo machine wasn’t in fact a tattoo machine at all. Thomas Edison, the inventor most famous for the lightbulb, the motion picture camera and the phonograph, had numerous failed inventions including the electric pen. But was it such a failure in the end?

In 1875, Edison designed a device which was intended to be used to make multiple copies of a single document by writing on multiple pages at once. Edison recognised the demand for high speed copying after observing the amount of document duplication required by the likes of merchants and lawyers. The electric pen would pass over a stencil with an inked roller and puncture the roller at 50 punctures a second, transferring the ink onto the sheets of paper below.

The pen sold worldwide for the first five years, but ultimately failed as it became clear it was not practical for every day use. The drawback was the pen’s battery, which had to be maintained by experienced telegraphists and engineers, resulting in a target market that was in fact unable to successfully use it. Soon, mechanical pens that did not require batteries took over the market in 1880, before being rendered completely obsolete by the typewriter in the late 1880s.

Whilst the electric pen was not a success for Edison, his invention did lead to a much greater, more innovative design via someone else.

The First Electric Tattoo Machine

Samuel O’Reilly was a tattoo artist born in Connecticut in 1854 to Irish immigrant parents. Little is known about his early life, but we do know that he was a bit of a rebellious teenager and had a few brushes with the law. After leaving prison he joined the Navy, and it’s there we believe he learnt the art of tattooing

While living in New York in 1891, where he’d been dubbed ‘Professor O’Reilly, the best tattooer in the world and a perfect gentleman’ he became aware of Edison’s failed electric pen invention. Using Edison’s original design, he created an electric needle, which operated in the same way as the pen. It used a similar rotating ink roller, but he replaced the pen tip with a needle that would push ink into the skin. O’Reilly had developed a machine that would make a tattoo artist’s job much easier – the handheld tattoo machine.

On 8th December 1891, he patented the device and changed the face of modern tattooing forever. With the previous method of hand-poking, even the most experienced artists cold only puncture the skin two or three times a second, O’Reilly’s machine increased this to around 50 perforations a second, completely revolutionising the way tattoos were done.

O’Reilly’s popularity also skyrocketed. He became inundated with bookings for his services, and since he could tattoo people much faster, tattoos became more popular. Rather than being heavily associated with drunk and disorderly military men, tattoos began to become more normalised in all factions of American society. Other tattoo artists were keen to get in on the machine-tattooing business. In 1900, O’Reilly took a rival artist to court over the use of his patented tattoo machine; however, the case was never conclusively resolved.

Tattoo studies began cropping up all across the country and spread further afield to Europe. O’Reilly managed to secure his legacy, but he did not get to enjoy his lucrative success for very long. He died in 1909 after falling whilst painting his house.



Tattooing has come a long way, but we have Samuel O’Reilly to thank for his innovation. If you’re looking for tattoo machines or tattoo supplies, Body Shock has everything you need. Browse our range of stock today.