Sewing Machine
Elias Howe 1819-1867

The idea of a sewing machine attracted many inventors. Several versions had been designed in England without success. A functional version, introduced in France in 1830, aroused the ire of tailors who feared they would lose jobs, and they burned the inventor's business.

Elias Howe was born in Spencer, Massachusetts. He apprenticed to a textile mill at sixteen. Eventually he moved to Boston and apprenticed to toolmaker Ari Davis, who introduced him to the idea of a sewing machine. By the 1840s Howe's ill health forced him to depend on the earnings of his wife, who took in sewing. As he watched her, he thought of a sewing device that used thread from two different sources. A needle would push through the cloth and create a loop on the other side, then a shuttle would slip thread through the loop and create a tight stitch.

Howe built his device, though in the process his workshop burned down, and the production of his machines turned out to be far too expensive for household use. He patented his machine in 1846 and tried to promote sales in England. A swindler stole his design, and desperate for funds, Howe worked for him to improve his machine. Howe managed to pay for his family's passage home to America, then pawned his patent model and papers to buy his own ticket. In his absence, he found that other inventors had variations of his machine in use everywhere. The most successful, Isaac Singer, combined marketing skill with mechanical talent.

Howe mortgaged his father's farm to sue infringers on his patent. In 1854, his patent was upheld, and Singer was ordered to pay fifteen thousand dollars in back royalties. In 1856 Howe was able to negotiate a deal with all the manufacturers of sewing machines for a five-dollar royalty for each machine sold in the United States and one dollar for each sold abroad. At long last, he had the riches he had dreamed of. The forty-eight year-old Howe died in 1867, the year his patent expired.

 The First Conglomerate: 145 Years of Singer Sewing Machine Company by D. C. Bissek, 1999

 Queen of Inventions: How the Sewing Machine Changed the World by Laurie Carlson, 2003