Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Did you know, a tattoo machine is really just as simple as a door bell…
There are a lot of twists and turns in the history of tattoo machines and patents for those machines, but one of the first designs that has inspired the modern-day tattoo machine remains a built-up bell modification from the 1800’s. The earliest patents are maintained by Thomas Edison’s 1876 rotary operated stencil pen (in actuality, an electromagnetic coil-rotary hybrid); and just a few years later, Samuel F O’Reilly’s 1891 patent, considered the very first tattoo machine.
Due to the lack of electrical wiring in homes at the time, a stand-alone doorbell with internal wiring was introduced and made as affordable technology for any regular old Joe Shmoe (see picture). The doorbell was often encased in a wooden box with a metal frame and consisted of battery wiring. As tattoo machines evolved, they became customized by adding adjustable parts such as binding posts, armature springs, contacts, coils, needle bar, and the armature. These built up/ modified bell mechanisms became the frame work of a “classic single-upright”, one of the most famous kinds of modern machines with and upright bar on one side and a short shelf that extends from the back side creating an L-shaped frame. The date of this kind of upright machine can be seen as early as the late 1880’s.
Elmer Ellsworth Getchell can be seen in a picture from the New York Tribune article using this style of machine back in 1902, but claims that he was using his own machine design based off of the bell mechanism many years prior to getting photographed. This machine came to be known as the “vibrating bell mechanism”, and it is well maintained that this is the model from which modern day electric machines are based. Getchell never obtained a patent for his design of what looks like our modern day electric tattoo machine, but he was also one of the earliest innovators of this era. There is much debate and even charges filed against Getchell by O’Reilly stating that he had infringed on his patent.
No matter who patented it first, or who even thought of it first, the beauty that comes from this is the giant leap that was made between a simple doorbell into a complex tattoo machine. As an apprentice at Speakeasy Tattoo in Los Angeles I try to remember this as my base. Awe inspiring inventions come from the most simplistic of origins. Just like, the most abstruse of tattoo designs can come from the most elementary of thoughts.
Two curb the machine and limit art to handicraft is a denial of opportunity -Lewis Mumford-