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Black Inventors and Innovators - Jan Matzeliger

Updated on March 14, 2011


Jan Matzeliger was born September 15, 1852 in Paramaribo which was Dutch Guyana and now Suriname in South America and died August 24, 1889of tuberculosis in Lynn, Massachusetts. Matzeliger died before he could see the full profit from his invention.

Matzeliger’s parents were Dutch and of African descent, his father was an engineer and Matzeliger would accompany his father to the factory at an early age, showing his aptitude to repair complex machinery. 

In his late teens Matzeliger decided to explore the world working aboard an East Indian merchant ship he toured many countries and landed in the United States.  Matzeliger arrived in Pennsylvania speaking very little English and a local Black church took him in. Matzeliger earned money doing small jobs using his hands and his mechanical abilities.

Shortly after Matzeliger started working for a cobbler which began his interest in making shoes. At the time attaching the sole of the shoe to the upper part of the shoe had to be done by hand, because there was no machine that could do the work. This meant that it took about 10 hours to produce 50 pairs of shoes since there were only a few people who had the skills to complete this task. These people were called hand lasters and because there were so few of them they were able to charge a lot of money in turn making shoes very expensive. Marzeliger decided that it was time to find another alternative.

Before Marzeliger could create a machine to do the work of a laster he decided to go to school. Marzeliger took English classes and learned to read.  This enabled Marzeliger to study books on physics and mechanical science.  Marzeliger created a number of inventions but without money he was unable to patent any of his inventions and watched others claim his work as their own. This did not stop Marzeliger’s original focus on creating a lasting machine.

Marzeliger studied hand lasters as they worked and developed a crude model of his invention with whatever scraps he could find but knew he needed better materials.

Marzeliger continued to improve upon his device and the offers started to roll in.  Marzeliger knew that he was on to something. Marzeliger decided to split the interest in his device between himself and two investors. With this cash he was able to make newer and better models of his Lasting Machine and was able to apply for a patent.  Marzeliger’s final Lasting Machine model was able to produce 700 pairs of shoes each day. With Marzeliger’s invention consumers were able to purchase shoes at much lower prices and more jobs were available for workers.

Through adversity Marzeliger was able to change the shoe manufacturing industry; creating more jobs and making shoes more available to the public at a reasonable price.



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    • Triplet Mom profile image

      Triplet Mom 6 years ago from West Coast

      Thank you Joyce! I actually thought the same thing when I was reading about his life. A truly amazing person!

    • Joyce F profile image

      Joyce F 6 years ago from USA

      Great hub on the black inventor and innovator Jan Matzeliger. I can't imagine being a teenager and just hopping a ship to another country. What a spirit of adventure. Voted up and awesome.

    • Triplet Mom profile image

      Triplet Mom 6 years ago from West Coast

      Thank you Hello Hello!

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

      A great tribute to such a wonderful man. Thank you.