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Thomas Edison

Pen Pal: How Edison’s Early Copy Machine Reinvented Tattooing

March 03, 2014

Thomas Edison received 1,093 patents during his lifetime for inventions that include the light bulb, the power plant, the modern cement kiln and the first movie camera. He even came up with the tattoo machine.

In 1876, Thomas Edison patented an electric pen designed to relieve clerks of the drudgery of duplicating documents. It had a sharp vibrating needle that users dragged along lines of text written on a sheet of paper.

The needle punctured the sheet 50 times per second and turned it into a stencil. Ink would seep through the tiny holes and replicate the writing on papers placed underneath. The invention didn’t exactly catch on, but it presaged the copy machine and, in the hands of artists, revolutionized tattooing.

To celebrate Edison’s birthday last month, the design company Tattly made temporary tattoos of Thomas Edison’s lightbulb patent.