“The Iron”: History of the tattoo machine

The world of body art and ink would be nowhere today without the tattoo machine. The tattoo machine is a hand-held device. It is used to create permanent markings on the skin with indelible ink. Where did this machine that tattoo artists usually call “machine” and, “iron”, come from?

The history of the tattoo machine goes back to the time of Thomas Edison. America’s great inventor who invented the light bulb and motion picture camera, also in a manner, invent the tattoo gun. In 1876 Thomas Edison discovered the electric pen, a device originally meant to create multiple copies of a single image or text by passing over a stencil with an inked roller, which moved at 50 punctures per second, transferring the stencil’s contents to a sheet of paper below.

Unfortunately for Edison the device failed as a writing tool. the electric pen was a flop. Fortunately for us, it came under the attention of the New York tattoo artist Samuel F. O’Reilly. He improved upon Edison’s idea and, in 1891, created the first electric tattoo needle based on Edison’s prototype.
The device increased the speed and accuracy of a process that had long been done by hand.  The predecessor to the tattoo machine was the electric pen invented by Thomas Alva Edison and patented under the title Stencil-Pens in Newark, New Jersey, United States in 1876.[2] It was originally intended to be used as a duplicating device, but in 1891, Samuel O’Reilly discovered that Edison’s machine could be modified and used to introduce ink into the skin, and later patented a tube and needle system to provide an ink reservoir.

Samuel F. O’Reilly

The Electric Pen created by Edison was part of duplication system and driven by a single needle. The Electric Pen did not use any ink, rather, Ink was rolled out onto the surface and passed through perforations to create copies on blank sheets that were placed underneath the stencil. O’Reilly took this invention, added multiple needles and an ink reservoir, and earned himself fame and gratitude from tattoo lovers. In 1929, Percy Waters came up with a new design which closely resembles the modern day tattoo machine. His machine design included two electromagnetic coils that were set parallel with the frame, a spark shield and an on/off switch.

Percy Waters

Most modern tattoo machines are adapted to control needle depth, speed, and force of application. This has allowed tattooing to become a very precise art form, exactly as O’Reilly intended. This progress in the tattoo world also helped the tattoo world produce the style of facial tattooing that has attained mainstream popularity in America called dermapigmentation. Dermapigmentation or “permanent cosmetics” helps in addition or removal of freckles, beauty spots and scars.

So, in reality, the people responsible for the invention of something most tattoo artists hold so dear, belong to the 19th amd 20th century. The brilliant inventor Thomas Edison is the reason that today tattooing has become so easy and the tattoo world is grateful to him.