Today on Tech Talk Tuesday, we’re gonna talk about tattoo machines! If you’ve seen me on the site before, you’ve probably noticed that I have a few tattoos and I’m not the only one. In fact, almost half of all adults between 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo. Turns out they’re not just for sailors anymore! That being said, most people aren’t aware that the modern tattoo machine was essentially invented by our old friend (or nemesis?) Thomas Edison.
You see, in 1876, Edison patented a device which he called a Stencil-Pen. While the first iteration of this device used a rotary drive, a patent filed the following year would almost pass for a modern tattoo machine and it was intended for making stencils. A pair of coils would drive a needle up and down at a rate of up to 50 cycles per second and the user would write or draw with the needle in order to punch a series of tiny holes in heavy paper. The perforated paper could then be used to roll ink through and make several duplicates of the image. This technology never really caught on; However, in 1891, a fellow named Samuel O’Reilly had the bright idea to modify the original rotary Stencil-Pen for making tattoos. Sam even received a patent for his addition of an ink tube to act as a reservoir. Just a few weeks after Mr. O’Reilly built his tattoo machine based on the rotary action of the original Stencil-Pen, a Mr. Thomas Riley adapted the coil-driven design for tattooing.
The coil-driven tattoo machine saw several incremental improvements over the years and it’s still the preferred “iron” for most artists. If you’ve ever been in a tattoo parlor, you’ve heard the buzzing of a coil machine. It’s easy to adjust the speed, depth and throw of a coil-based machine, and they’re easy to repair. That doesn’t mean, however, that the rotary machine disappeared entirely. Manfred-Kohrs improved on O’Reilly’s rotary design in 1978 and used it to tattoo several notable musicians, artists and celebrities. Today, companies such as Welker, Bishop and Sabre still produce and sell rotary tattoo machines. Because of the ubiquity of small electric motors, rotary machines are also the DIY tattoo machine of choice.