You may remember Thomas Edison as the inventor of the light bulb, or for his famous rivalry with fellow inventor Nicola Tesla (yes, who Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors is named after). Edison is associated with many terms nodding to his work on technological advancements and innovation, however, the word “tattoo” is not among them. Well, interestingly enough, it should be.
While the light bulb and the phonograph are widely recognized and celebrated Edison inventions, his electric pen has been comparatively looked over. This is most likely due to the fact that after its release it barely scratched the market’s surface and was regarded as a dud. The electric pen was patented in 1876 and had the original purpose of helping the user to more easily make copies, think of it as sort of a precursor to the copy machine. While the majority of the public dismissed the invention, a New York City tattoo artist saw it in a different light. On December 8, 1891 Samuel O’Reilly was granted a patent for a tattoo machine that was a modification of Edison’s electric pen. If you look at the blueprints for the two inventions below, they do look remarkably similar.
O’Reilly’s new machine revolutionized the tattoo industry, increasing the standard of skin peroration from two to three times per second to a staggering fifty times per second. Tattoo enthusiasts from far and wide travelled to New York City to witness first hand this remarkable machine. O’Reilly’s fellow tattoo artists then began to build replicas to use in their own shops. Surprisingly, to this day the tattoo machine is essentially the same one that Samuel O’Reilly dreamt up back in 1891. Of course there have been a few tweaks here and there to modernize the invention, but the core mechanisms have not changed.
Thomas Edison himself had a tattoo, a small geometric pattern of five dots (called a quincunx and also seen on the five side of dice). Many have debated about the meaning of this tattoo; Was it in homage to his part in paving the way for the first tattoo gun? Was it for his family or another invention? We may never know, but the next time you head to a tattoo parlor to immortalize your recently deceased dog (if you ever do), thank Thomas Edison.
Sources/Where to head to learn more:
Did Thomas Edison Invent the Tattoo Machine?, Inked Mag Staff
10 Historical Titans with Surprising Tattoos, Amanda Green (Mental Floss)
Weird That Thomas Edison Kind of Invented the Tattoo Gun, No?, Priscilla Frank (Huffington Post)