That time a sailor screwed Edison out of creating the first tattoo machine

That time a sailor screwed Edison out of creating the first tattoo machine

That time a sailor screwed Edison out of creating the first tattoo machine

Though Thomas Edison is known for giving the world a number of fantastic inventions, you’ll always see an asterisk next to patents for which he’s credited. Sure, the history books give him praise for inventing the phonograph and the incandescent lightbulb, 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 disputes during his lifetime. He’d quickly squash challenges that arose between himself and other inventors, mostly by leveraging 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’s 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 of hard labor for burglary. He needed to do something better for himself when he was released, so he enlisted in the Navy.

His time in the Navy was brief, but it was there that he first got introduced to the rich legacy of tattoos. At this time, tattoos were highly stigmatized as being just for drunk and disorderly troops. It was uncommon to see someone who hadn’t served with any ink — but it was even rarer to find a sailor with bare skin. O’Reilly looked past the nonsense and recognized that the tattoos the sailors wore were beautiful pieces of art.

Some reports say he deserted the Navy after a few months; others say he served his time and learned the art of tattooing while in. While it’s unclear which is true, we’re skeptical about the desertion — he was never charged for it and he made a living tattooing other sailors. We do know for a fact, however, that he’s responsible for his famous quote: "A sailor without […]