Monday, August 26, 2013

Menlo Park Ink? Edison's hidden link to body art.

What does Thomas Edison have in common with L.A. Ink's Kat Von D, a gazillion bikers and legions of hipster Brooklynites?

If you guessed they all have tattoos, you'd be close. Edison most likely didn't sport ink (I could be wrong), but he invented the electric pen, which was later adapted into the precursor of the instrument used to apply permanent skin artwork today.

Born in Edison's Newark lab in 1876 and patented after his move to Menlo Park, the electric pen was conceived with business uses in mind. His invention was actually a stencil maker, a battery-operated pen whose tip had a stylus that rapidly perforated the paper as the user wrote. The finished document would then be run through a press that forced ink through the perforations onto another piece of paper, printing an exact duplicate of the original document.

Edison believed that document-dependent businesses like banks, law firms and insurance companies would be quick to grasp the time- and labor-saving benefits of his invention, and many did, despite the challenges presented by the device's sometimes temperamental battery arrangement. Not surprisingly, enthusiasm was a bit more muted from clerks whose work was being severely curtailed as a result of the machine's prodigious output. The business soon expanded worldwide.

Other manufacturers soon devised ways around the battery issues, and Edison lost his dominant share in the electric pen market. He sold the patent to Western Electric, then reacquired it and sold it to A.B. Dick, who reverently proclaimed Edison the "father of mimeography." Eventually the whole industry declined with the increasing use of typewriters, though A.B. Dick profitably adapted the printing concept into the mimeograph press many of us recall from the 60's and 70's. (Remember those blue 'ditto' sheets and the chemical smell when they were fresh off the press?)

What does this have to do with tattoos? In 1891 a New York tattoo artist named Samuel O'Reilly realized that with the addition of tubing and an ink reservoir, Edison's pen could quickly and efficiently deposit ink into the skin, saving both time for the artist and probably a lot of pain for the recipient. Other artists later experimented with electromagnetic motors, reducing the pen's weight and allowing for greater dexterity.

Regardless, Edison had inadvertently spurred innovation in a field in which he likely had absolutely no interest. I do wonder, though: if he had gotten a tattoo, what would it be of?


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