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Elias Howe

inventor of the sewing machine

Elias Howe

Elias Howe was born in Spencer, Massachusetts, on July 9, 1819, and spent his early years on the family farm. In 1835 he entered the factory of a manufacturer of cotton machinery at Lowell, Massachusetts, where he learned the machinist's trade. After losing that job to the Panic of 1837, he moved to Boston, where he found work in the machinist shop of Ari Davis making mariner's tools and scientific equipment. Local legend has it that Howe gained the inspiration for inventing a sewing machine when an inspiring inventor brought in a knitting machine seeking encouragement. Davis is said to have told the man, “Why are you wasting your time over a knitting machine? Take my advice, try something that will pay. Make a sewing machine.” The customer replied, “It can't be done,” but Howe wasn't so sure.

In 1843, Howe was sidelined from work due to disability, and his wife had tp take up odd-job sewing to pay the family bills. Her labors spurred him to focus all his energies on developing a sewing machine, but first he had to come up with a way to support his family without a paying job. Fortunately, his father had recently established a factory in Cambridge, and Elias was allowed to carry out his work in a shop there. Unfortunately, the factory burned down not long after it opened. Good fortune returned quickly, however, as George Fisher, a friend of Howe's, saw merit in the sewing machine concept and agreed to house Howe and his family, as well invest $500 into the project in return for a half interest in the patent if one was obtained.

By May 1845, Howe had a machine that was sewing seams. By July he had finished his first two suits of wool clothes -- one for George Fisher and one for himself. Now it was time to interest the public in his machine. He put on a display, a race against five seamstresses, and his machine finished five entire seams before any of the seamstresses finished one. The crowds remained wary, however, and the protests of the local tailors proved effective -- Howe did not receive a single order for his machine. Undeterred by this setback, Howe made some improvements to his machine, and on September 10, 1846 he was awarded Patent #4760 for his lockstitch sewing machine.

Howe's lockstitch sewing machine
Howe's lockstitch sewing machine

In 1847, still unable to find a U.S. market for his machine, Howe went to London, where he was employed by William Thomas, a corset, umbrella, and leather goods manufacturer, to whom he had sold the English rights for 250. Thomas wanted Howe to adapt his machine specifically for the making of corsets, but two years of work on the project failed to produce even a prototype. In 1849 Howe received word that his wife was gravely ill and, after selling what little work he had accomplished to Thomas, sailed for home. Mrs. Howe died soon after his return.

As if the loss of his wife wasn't bad enough, Howe also found that a number of imitators were enjoying success from his patent. He subsequently spent the next seven years fighting suspected patent infringers in court, with his two biggest cases being against Isaac Singer (who had invented an up-and-down motion mechanism) and Allen Wilson (developer of a rotary hook shuttle). The court battles were expensive, but his family and friends again came to his aid and, in 1856, the Patent Commissioner finally ruled that Howe's patent superseded all other sewing machine patents.

To avoid continual lawsuits over every new model, an agreement forming a business “Combination,” was reached in 1856. Four major patent holders all agreed that their parts could be used by the others. Additionally, Howe was to receive royalties equaling $5 for every machine sold in the United States and $1 for every machine exported. Thanks to that agreement, Howe ultimately earned almost two million dollars between 1854 and 1867 (the year his patent expired). During the Civil War, he donated a portion of his wealth to equip an infantry regiment for the Union Army and served in the regiment as a private. In 1865, he established the Howe Machine Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the machine that he produced there won the gold medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1867.

Elias Howe died in Brooklyn, New York, on October 3, 1867, and was buried in that city's Green-Wood Cemetery.

Isaac Singer

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This page was last updated on October 02, 2017.