New-York Historical Society

Edison and the tattoo

Thomas Edison is best known his most influential inventions, but even among his lesser accomplishments we can find a success story — of sorts.

 Diagram of Edison’s Electric Pen. Lefferts Family Papers, MS 379

Even though it is believed to be the first American electric motor powered device, the electric pen is certainly not the first Edison invention that comes to mind. Developed in 1875, it was patented in the following year. At 50 punctures per second Edison’s “pen” was meant to create a stencil that would allow multiple copies to be made by making a pass over the stencil with an inked roller, thereby transferring the text to a sheet of paper below. Given its anonymity today, it’s not surprising that the contraption was largely a flop.

 Test of the “American Electric Pen”, London, 26 May 1876. Lefferts Family Papers, MS 379

But this is where the story takes a rather unexpected turn. Despite its dismal performance as a writing implement, the technology behind Edison’s electric pen left a legacy in one of the more colorful areas of popular culture. In 1891, a New York tattoo artist by the name of Samuel F. O’Reilly produced an electric tattoo needle based on Edison’s pen. It brought the twin advantages of speed and precision to what had previously been done at a much slower pace by hand, an advancement that would revolutionize tattooing.

 Trade card of Charles Wagner, O’Reilly’s former student. Bella C. Landauer Collection, PR 031

A curious aside is that by the 1890s, an upward percolation of the practice amongst European nobility (influenced most certainly by the practice’s almost ubiquitous presence amongst sailors) had begun to have comparable effects among blue-bloods across the Atlantic. Being one of the foremost in his field, “Professor” O’Reilly as he called himself, tattooed many of these “society people” himself. However, discretion prevailed and their names typically remained a secret unless leaked elsewhere.

While his invention brought him great success and notoriety, it came to an abrupt halt after a fall while painting his house in 1908. Upon his death, taking up the reins of O’Reilly’s business at 11 Chatham Square was one of his most successful students, Charles Wagner.

 Photograph of early 20th Century Detroit, MI tattoo artist, Percy Waters. Bella C. Landauer Collection, PR 031

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