Although Thomas Edison is known for giving the world a number of fantastic inventions, you will always see an asterisk next to the patents he is credited with. Sure, the history books praise him for inventing the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb, but not without mentioning that he had limited involvement with his other 1,093 patents – or worse, acquired them by dubious means. .
Edison was no stranger to patent litigation during his lifetime. He had quickly eliminated the challenges between himself and other inventors, mostly by taking advantage of his vast wealth and well-crafted public image – with one notable exception: a Navy veteran. Samuel O’Reilly gave Edison a taste of his own medicine and gave the world a device that is now synonymous with the United States Navy: the electric tattoo machine.
Samuel O’Reilly was born to impoverished Irish immigrants in Connecticut in 1854. As a teenager, he and two friends were arrested and sentenced to two years hard labor for burglary. He needed to do something better for himself when he was released, so he joined the navy.
His stint in the Navy was brief, but it was there that he first learned about the rich heritage of tattoos. At that time, tattoos were heavily stigmatized as being reserved for drunken and disorderly troops. It was rare to see someone who hadn’t served with ink – but it was even rarer to find a sailor with bare skin. O’Reilly looked past the nonsense and recognized that tattoos sailors wore beautiful pieces of art.
Some reports say he deserted the navy after a few months; others say he has had its day and learned the art of tattooing while there. While it’s unclear what’s true, we’re skeptical of the desertion – he was never charged for it and made a living tattooing other sailors.
O’Reilly’s life after service was far from stable. After serving a prison sentence for a robbery committed by members of his family, he finally decided to start his own tattoo parlor in New York in 1888.
Meanwhile, Thomas Edison had created a new invention called the “electric pen”. The idea behind the machine was that it could punch a hole in multiple pieces of paper so that a writer could write on each piece. Needless to say, it never really caught on or worked most of the time, so it was abandoned and forgotten for about fifteen years.
Samuel O’Reilly saw the potential of this device being used as a faster alternative to the “hammer and needle” method of tattooing. He adapted the basic idea with a stronger tubular shaft, an ink reservoir and a connection for several needles. It was patented on December 8, 1891, like the “tattoo machine”. Suddenly, people all over the world were looking for him for new ink.
This naturally infuriated Edison, but the design was different enough not to constitute patent infringement. A former friend-turned-rival of O’Reilly, Elmer E. Getchell, also claimed to have created the tattoo machine, and the case was brought before Federal Court.
Getchell supported Edison in the case, saying O’Reilly was not responsible for the tattoo machine. Courts determined that since his patent included the ink reservoir, it was very different from Edison’s, effectively giving O’Reilly the undisputed claim to the device.
O’Reilly was open about his modification of Edison’s original electric pen, but he still managed to use Edison’s own game against him in court and proved that the tattoo machine did indeed belong to him.
This article was originally published on April 4, 2022 by We are the mighty. Follow We Are The Mighty on Facebook.
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