Issue 26: how an unsuccessful invention left a lasting impression
One man’s failure was another man’s fortune.
Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor. At the time of his death in 1931, he had more than 1,000 US patents to his name. 2,000+ if you count those he held around the entire world.
He was responsible for some of the most ground-breaking and influential developments in the fields of telegraphy, electricity, sound, and motion picture.
But there were plenty of less illustrious inventions, too.
Like his electric pen, part of an ‘autographic printing’ device patented in 1876, designed to make duplicating documents easier.
As the user 'wrote' with the pen, a battery-powered motor drove a needle up and down, poking holes in a piece of paper to create a stencil. An inked roller passed over the stencil would then transfer the words onto pages underneath.
But consumers found the pen unwieldy, and advancements in the typewriter and carbon paper markets that same decade meant Edison's invention was a commercial failure.
Despite this, it has made a lasting impression around the world.
In 1878, Samuel O'Reilly, a hand-poke tattoo artist, saw one of Edison's pens languishing in a New York shop window, and inspiration struck.
He modified the pen’s shaft to make it easier to hold, added an ink reservoir that the needle would pass though, and in 1891 patented it as a ‘tattooing machine’.
O’Reilly’s modification of Edison’s electric pen could hold up to five needles and made tattoos cleaner, faster, and line thickness more versatile. O’Reilly’s business, and his machine, took off.
More than 130 years later, the tattoo machines used today are little changed from O'Reilly’s (nee Edison's) original device.