O’Reilly’s rambunctious, enigmatic life began in May 1854 in Waterbury, Connecticut. Both his parents were Irish immigrants, and he was the oldest of five children. At an early age, he – like so many other Waterbury residents of that era – began working in the brass industry (Waterbury is nicknamed “The Brass City”).
The electric tattooing machine was officially patented on 8 December 1891 by a New York tattoo artist named Samuel O’Reilly. But even O’Reilly would be the first to admit that his invention was really an adaptation of a machine invented by Thomas Edison—the Autographic Printing Pen. O’Reilly witnessed a demonstration of the electric pen, a sort of writing drill that Edison had built to allow documents to be etched into stencils and then copied. The electric pen was a failure. The tattooing machine was an unqualified, worldwide smash.
O’Reilly’s tattoo machine worked by using a hollow needle filled with permanent ink. An electric motor powered the needle in and out of the skin at a rate of up to 50 punctures per second. The tattoo needle inserted a small drop of ink below the surface of the skin each time. The original machine patent allowed for different sized needles deliver varying amounts of ink, a very design-focused consideration.
Before O’Reilly’s innovation, tattoos—the word comes from the Tahitian word “tatu” which means “to mark something”—were much harder to make. Tattoo artists worked by hand, perforating the skin perhaps three times a second as they installed their designs. O’Reilly’s machine with its 50 perforations per second was an enormous improvement in efficiency.
Further enhancements and refinements to the tattoo machine have been made and the modern tattooing device is now capable of delivering 3,000 punctures per minute.
Sources: Bellis, Mary. “The History of the Tattoo Machine.” ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021
Further reading: The Tattooed Irishman by Carmen Nyssen
Featured image | John O’Reilly (brother of Samuel)