The electric tattoo machine was first patented 1891 by Samuel O'Reilly, a tattooer from New York City. His invention was based on Thomas Edison's "Electric Stencil Pen" that was part of a mimeograph, a method of duplicating hand-written documents. Prior to this all tattooing was done by hand poking or other non-electric methods. In 1904 Charlie Wagner patented the first dual coil reciprocating armature bar tattoo machine, that is very similar to what is still used to this day. It was based on the electromagnet of a doorbell ringer!
In the United States during the early 1900's there were only a small handful of tattoo suppliers. Most were tattooers themselves that sold supplies to supplement their income. In NYC was Charlie Wagner. Detroit had Percy Waters. Bill Moore in Chicago ran the Chicago Tattoo Supply House. By the 1940's and 1950's tattooing had really become popular with the servicemen of WW2 and the circus sideshow attractions. This popularity brought in a
new tattooers all over the country. And as before they usually sold supplies as well. Many of the tattooers designed their own machines and were well known for their machines. Owen Jensen had the "Special". Sailor Jerry Collins had the "Bulldog". Bill Jones had the "Jonesy". They all functioned basically the same way, with the differences being in the frame design and location of the posts where the power supply is connected.
Below are some of the vintage machines on display at the museum.