Humanities › History & Culture The History of the Tattoo Machine Share Flipboard Email Print Modern Tattoo Machine. nolimitpictures/Getty Images History & Culture Inventions Famous Inventors Famous Inventions Patents & Trademarks Invention Timelines Computers & The Internet American History African American History African History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Genealogy Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Mary Bellis Inventions Expert Mary Bellis covered inventions and inventors for ThoughtCo for 18 years. She is known for her independent films and documentaries, including one about Alexander Graham Bell. our editorial process Mary Bellis Updated April 22, 2017 More and more people are getting tattoos today, and they do not carry the same social stigma that they used to. But we didn't always use the tattoo machines that you see in your standard parlor. History and Patenting The electric tattooing machine was officially patented on Dec. 8th, 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. How it Works 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.