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Elias Howe and the Invention of the Sewing Machine

Updated on June 14, 2015
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Elias Howe

Old Elias was born in Spencer, Massachusetts, one of eight children born to a farmer / miller and his wife. The family was poor, and each of the children was taught to do some sort of work to help bring in money. Elias’ health was poor, though, and he was somewhat physically handicap which put the quash on what he could physically do. Somewhere between the ages of eleven and sixteen he developed an interest in machinery. This led to a number of machining positions in various industries including cotton mills and hemp carding (carding is a process that aligns all, well, misaligned fibers).

When he was twenty-one, Elias married Elizabeth Ames and they moved to Boston, where he found work in a machine-shop. It was discovered that he was more inclined to spend time putting forth ideas on how to make things work better than he was in simply following instructions. You can imagine how well this went over, and Howe was barely supporting himself, his wife, and their three children (Simon, Julia, and Jane).

It was when Howe came home from work exhausted and lay in bed watching his wife sew by hand (as a means to help support the family) that he began to give considerable thought to the possibility of sewing by machine. Apparently, the idea of sewing machines had been talked about for some time, but very little had come of the talk. Given his propensity for machining, he started testing some of his ideas.

The First Attempt

Elias’ first machine included a needle, sharpened on both ends with the eye in the middle, that fed only very coarse thread – turns out, fine thread would break – through movements that mimicked hand movements. It took him a year to decide it wasn’t working to his satisfaction.

The First Attempt with some Changes

Elias realized that he needed to make radical changes to his idea. He landed upon the thought that there would need to be another stitch and possibly more than one needle to accomplish what needed to be done. Eventually – as ideas are wont to do – he decided to use two threads, a shuttle (what I presume to be a bobbin to hold the thread), and a curved needle with the eye near the point rather than in the middle. In 1844, he created a working model of wire and wood, and discovered that it worked.

What Every Good Inventor with a Wife and Kids Does

Excited by the possibilities, Elias quit his job as a machinist, moved himself and his family in with his father, and worked odd jobs while creating the parts for his sewing machine. Needless to say, this was not the easiest way to provide for his family, barely scraping by. To add insult to injury, a fire destroyed his father’s shop (where they cut palm leaf for use in hat making) which left them all without much of anything. Elias was sure his machine would work, but not only did he not have the approximately $500 he needed to build a prototype, he also needed to build a prototype if he wanted to find investors.

He was, as they say, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

As Fate Would Have It

There was a local coal and wood dealer named Fisher who was not only interested in Elias’ design, but he was also with funds. In exchange for being co-owner of the patent, Fisher offered the following to Howe and his family:

A place to live

A workshop in which to work

$500

Score!

It took Elias about four months to sew a four-yard seam with his machine and another three to four weeks to finish building the machine. In another month-and-a-half, Elias used his machine to sew wool suits for both him and Fisher. It was this machine that set the standard for all sewing machines that followed.

Thwarted

Elias applied for and received the patent for his sewing machine in 1845. He approached the Boston tailors who agreed that it would be useful, but insisted it would never be formally used because it would bring disaster to their trade. It seemed that the more perfection and ease the sewing machine offered, the more everyone dug their heels in. Even though everyone loved the machine, no one would spend a penny on it. Fisher backed out of the partnership and Howe was forced to once again move his family back in with his father.

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter

Elias ditched all thoughts of his sewing machine and went to work as a train engineer to support his family. If you’ll recall, his health was never that great to begin with, and he pretty much lost it entirely. He was forced to quit work, leaving, you guessed it, only his sewing machine to capture his interest. Certain it would bring him wealth, he sent his brother, Amasa, to England in 1846, with a sample machine. As fate would have it, Amasa met a William Thomas who was so awed by the machine he offered Elias two things:

$1250 for the machine

A job at $15 a week in his umbrella / corset making business

You can guess what happened next. Elias left for England with his family to follow shortly thereafter. He lasted eight months working for Thomas who treated him so poorly he quit the job and ended up broke yet again, although this time the bonus was that he was in a foreign country and knew virtually no one. He was, however, able to get a few dollars sent from the States and sent him wife and children home. He followed a couple of months later only to find out upon arriving in New York that his wife was dying of Consumption aka Tuberculosis in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

So, here he was, stuck in New York as his wife lay dying. No money for a train ticket. Too weak to attempt to walk. He was, however, able to get some money for a ticket and made it home before his wife died.

To add insult, he also discovered that the ship carrying his household goods from England, paltry though they might have been, had sunk.

Thieves and Liars

If his wife’s death and his being a pauper with no way to care for his children wasn’t enough, during his absence from the United States, a number of machinists had taken it upon themselves to ignore the patent and build sewing machines for profit – including Isaac Singer. By creating carbon copies of Howe’s sewing machine, they essentially proved that the sewing machine was a feasible and profitable addition to a number of industries – the sewing machines had been written about in the newspapers and were already being used in a few factories. Howe, of course, defended his patent, won, and was awarded royalties from Singer as well as a number of other patent-infringers.

Rioters

Despite the proven practicality and profitability of the sewing machine, when Howe was working to further expand use of his sewing machine that the Sewing Machine Riots happened. These riots were led by the labor leaders of a number of New York shops that created inexpensive clothing. The sewing machine was criticized as being a threat to all the people who worked in these shops and a number of the companies who utilized Howe’s sewing machine discovered that the machines were damaged which slowed the success of the endeavor. When that didn’t work, public demonstrations were organized, larger companies were threatened enough to stop using them, though the smaller shops with only a couple of employees used them to their great advantage. Eventually, the discord stopped.

The End

Elias Howe died in October 1867 in Brooklyn, New York, a rich and famous man.

One Last Question

What is it with men in the 1800s and their awesome hair?

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