Love them or hate them, tattoos are as popular now as they have ever been, and people are constantly finding new and creative ways to produce unique ink designs that will last a lifetime. However, did you know that the tattoo machine itself is not only another American invention, but it also shares an inventor with one of the most iconic breakthrough inventions of all time?
The creator of the first electric pen, intended to be used for duplicating designs, was invented by none other than Thomas Edison, creator of the modern light bulb, in 1876. Four years later, it was discovered that modifying the pen allowed it to inject ink into skin to create a tattoo. Although similar experiments had been done already by tattoo artists, businessman Samuel O’Reilly patented the necessary modification for the first time and began a successful tattoo business in New York in 1891.
Less than a month later in London, Thomas Riley patented an alternative tattoo machine, which was incredibly based on a doorbell. In fact, this design resembles modern tattoo machines thanks to its design based on a single coil electromagnet. A two-coil version which is even more similar to today’s designs was also patented in London a short time later.
Since the concept of a tattoo machine quickly became patented and monetised at the end of the 19th century, it gradually evolved into what we would find in tattoo shops all over the world today. Modern machines are much more precise and allow for easier manipulation of the needles and ink to produce intricate designs more safely and quickly, but the basic concept has remained unchanged since the days of these early pioneers in the US and the UK. Which country contributed more significantly to the tattoo industry we know now, it may be hard to say, but we can confirm the Americans got there first, even if it was by only a few days!