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Tattoos 101 > View Lessons

The Tattoo Machine

It's a very curious device, its origins lie in the first practical use of an electric motor, a great American inventor and the cooperation of craftsmen from both sides of the Atlantic.

by britishinkArtist

June 26, 2005

The Industrial Revolution in both the U.S.A and the U.K. (1750-1915) brought with it an increase in population and urbanization, as well as new social classes. The manufacturing cities exported their goods via ships all over the globe and tattooing was a regular pass time amongst the sailors on long ocean journeys. The working class of the factories, mills and mines were exposed to the tattooing practices of the sailors and merchant navy in the taverns, markets and gambling houses of the day. All tattoos were applied by various hand methods inspired by the native practices of distant lands but, as with most other hand made artisan practices, tattooing would soon be mechanized.

Thomas Alva Edison is often referred to as the father of the modern electric tattoo machine. It would be a little more accurate to call him the grandfather of the tattoo machine.
In 1875 there had yet to be a use for this new invention called the electric motor, capable of transforming electrical current flow into rotary motion. Perhaps it was the pistons used on the wheels of steam trains that gave Edison the idea to transfer the circular, rotary action of the electric motor to a linear motion that could be applied to some purpose. But what could that be?
The very first invention to use an electric motor was known as the Autographic Printing Pen (Patented in the U.S. Aug.8th 1876).
What a very practical idea Mr. Edison.

This device would speed up the printing process by puncturing holes in a stencil, through which ink could be pressed onto a sheet of paper below.

The machine consisted of a heavy electric motor on the top of a pen barrel or tube. The needle (there was only one, thick steel needle) was driven up and down through the barrel, engraving the stencil plate below with a series of holes following the required design or lettering.

This was an effective use of the electric motor but not a user friendly one. It was cumbersome and difficult to work with for any extended period of time. Curiously Edison marketed the device, which sold well in America, even after he had designed improvements two years earlier in England (Patented in London Oct. 29th 1875 and in the U.S. Nov.6th 1877) By using two electromagnetic coils (a tightly wound copper wire around a soft iron core forming an electro-magnet), springs and contact bars the machine was lightened considerably.

Electromagnetic coils were widely used in telegraph instruments such as Morse's Repeater of 1836 and would prove to be vital in the development of the tattoo machine.

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