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Samuel O'Reilly's Peculiar Reciprocating Electromotored Tattoo Machine

Samuel O'Reilly's Peculiar Reciprocating Electromotored Tattoo Machine

Stories3 min Read

Step up, folks! Step right up! Witness the strange history of the one and only mechanical-inking marvel.

It’s the soundtrack for most tattoo shops—at least most New York tattoo shops—the familiar click-buzz-hum of a tattoo machine. Different brands with a shared lineage: Samuel O’Reilly’s Tattooing-Machine, US Patent No. 464, 801 granted December 8, 1891.

O’Reilly’s Tattooing-Machine Patent, U.S. Patent 464,801, filed July 16, 1891, and issued December 8, 1891. #Historical #Tattooing #SamOReilly #TattooMachine

Vaudevillian antics aside, O’Reilly (1854 - 1909) deserves credit for electrifying the art with his riff on Edison’s electric stencil-pen. “Professor S. O’Reilly” first appeared in New York in 1888, already a famed tattoo artist working out of a shop at 5 Chatham Square in Manhattan’s Bowery. The Professor illustrated all manner of bodies, from members of the sideshow and curiosity scene to US sailors shipping out to the Spanish-American war. In a letter to The New York Sun in 1898, O’Reilly explains:

Rendering of O’Reilly (left). “The Tattooing Fad has Reached New York via London.” New York Herald, December 12, 1897. #Historical #Tattooing #SamOReilly #TattooMachine

Well, he patented it but, like most history of invention, it’s more than probable O’Reilly developed the electric tattoo machine in an atmosphere of experimentation and artistic development. The mid-to-late 19th century saw an explosion of handheld electronic machines, though rarely were they more than novelties.

“Tattoo Artists at War.” The New York Times, January 1, 1900. #Historical #Tattooing #SamOReilly #TattooMachine

And then there’s this from The New York Times: “Tattoo Artists at War,” January 1, 1900. 

Elmer Getchell tattooing (right). “A Tattooing ‘Artist’.” New York Tribune, October 26, 1902. #Historical #Tattooing #SamOReilly #TattooMachine

The case lasted for a year and was later dropped without settlement. Carmen Nyssen, historian and researcher at the Tattoo Archive and creator of BuzzworthyTattoo.com, dug up both the 1899 subpoena and the 1900 case files:

Detail: Example of an electric tattoo machine. “New Yorkers Adopt French Fad.” The World (New York), August, 29 1897. #Historical #Tattooing #SamOReilly #TattooMachine

Conclusive? Hardly. But it does shine some light on the journey from Edison stencil-pen to modern tattoo machine. Is O’Reilly the godfather of electric tattooing? Yes, according to the US Patent Office. But as demonstrated above, O’Reilly was one of many contributors to the tattoo machine’s march to modernity, sharing the stage with greats like Elmer Getchell.


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