Elias Howe: Inventor of the Lock Stitch Sewing Machine

Dressmaker using sewing machine
Cultura/Matelly/ Riser/ Getty Images

Elias Howe Jr. (1819–1867) was an inventor of one of the first working sewing machines. This Massachusetts man began as an apprentice in a machine shop and came up with an important combination of elements for the first lock stitch sewing machine. But rather than making and selling machines, Howe made his fortune by initiating court suits against his competitors who he felt had infringed on his patents.

Elias Howe Biography

  • Known for: Invention of the lockstitch sewing machine in 1846
  • Born: July 9, 1819, in Spencer, Massachusetts 
  • Parents: Polly and Elias Howe, Sr.
  • Education: No formal education
  • Died: October 3, 1867, in Brooklyn, NY
  • Spouse: Elizabeth Jennings Howe
  • Children: Jane Robinson, Simon Ames, Julia Maria
  • Fun Fact: Although he could not afford to build a working model of his machine without financial backing, he died an enormously wealthy man with two million dollars ($34 million in today's money). 

Early Life

Elias Howe Jr. was born in Spencer, Massachusetts on July 9, 1819. His father Elias Howe Sr. was a farmer and a miller, and he and his wife Polly had eight children. Elias attended some primary school, but at the age of six, he gave up school to help his brothers make cards used to manufacture cotton.

At 16, Howe took his first full-time job as a machinist's apprentice, and in 1835 he moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, to work in the textile mills. He lost his job when the economic crash of 1837 closed the mills, and he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to work in a business which carded hemp. In 1838, Howe moved to Boston, where he found work in a machinist's shop. In 1840, Elias married Elizabeth Jennings Howe, and they had three children, Jane Robinson Howe, Simon Ames Howe, and Julia Maria Howe.

In 1843, Howe began work on a new sewing machine. Howe's machine was not the first sewing machine: The first patent for a chain stitch machine was issued to an Englishman named Thomas Sant in 1790, and in 1829, Frenchman Barthelemy Thimonnier invented and patented a machine which used a modified chain stitch, and manufactured 80 working sewing machines. Thimonnier's business came to an end when 200 tailors rioted, ransacked his factory and smashed the machines.

Invention of the Sewing Machine

In point of fact, however, the sewing machine cannot truly be said to have been invented by any one person. Instead, it was the result of numerous incremental and complementary inventive contributions. To create a working sewing machine, one needed:

  1. The ability to sew a lock stitch. Common to all modern machines today, a lock stitch connects two separate threads, top and bottom, to form a secure and straight seam. 
  2. A needle with an eye in the pointed end
  3. A shuttle to carry the second thread 
  4. A continuous source of thread (a spool)
  5. A horizontal table
  6. An arm overhanging the table that contains a vertically-positioned needle
  7. A continuous feed of cloth, synchronized with the movements of the needle 
  8. Tension controls for the thread to give slack when needed
  9. A presser foot to hold the cloth in place with each stitch
  10. The ability to sew in either straight or curved lines

The first of these elements invented was the eye-pointed needle, which was patented at least as early as the mid-18th century, and as many as five more times afterward. Howe's technological contribution was to mechanize a lock stitch by building a process with an eye-pointed needle and a shuttle to carry the second thread. He made his fortune, however, not by manufacturing sewing machines, but as a "patent troll"—someone who flourishes by suing those who were manufacturing and selling machines based in part on his patent.  

Howe's Contribution to the Sewing Machine

Howe got his idea from overhearing a conversation between an inventor and a businessman, talking about what a great idea the sewing machine was, but how difficult it was to achieve. He decided to attempt to mechanize the movements of his wife's hands as she sewed a chain stitch. Chain stitches were made with a single thread and loops to create the seams. He watched her carefully and made several attempts, all of which failed. After a year, Howe came to the conclusion that although he could not replicate the particular stitch his wife was using, he could add a second thread to lock the stitches together—the lock stitch. It was not until late in 1844 that he was able to plan out a way to mechanize the lock stitch, but he found he did not have the financial means to construct a model.

Howe met and made a partnership with George Fisher, a Cambridge coal and wood merchant, who was able to give Howe both the financial support he needed, and a place to work on his new version. In May 1845, Howe had a working model and exhibited his machine to the public in Boston. Although some of the tailors were convinced that it would ruin the trade, the machine's innovative characteristics eventually won their support.

At 250 stitches a minute, Howe's lock stitch mechanism out-stitched the output of five hand seamstresses with a reputation for speed, completing in one hour what took the sewers 14.5 hours. Elias Howe took out US Patent 4,750 for his lock stitch sewing machine on September 10, 1846, in New Hartford, Connecticut.

The Sewing Machine Wars

Elias Howe's Machine
The first functional lockstitch sewing machine, invented by American Elias Howe in 1845. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1846, Howe's brother Amasa went to England to meet William Thomas, a corset, umbrella, and valise manufacturer. This man eventually bought one of Howe's prototype machines for £250 and then paid Elias to come to England and run the machine for three pounds a week. It was not a good deal for Elias: At the end of nine months he was fired, and he returned to New York, penniless and having lost what was left during the voyage, to find his wife dying of consumption. He also discovered that his patent had been infringed.

While Howe was in England, numerous advances on the technology occurred, and in 1849, his rival Isaac M. Singer was able to put all the elements together to make the first commercially viable machine—Singer's machine could make 900 stitches in a minute. Howe went to Singer's office and demanded $2,000 in royalties. Singer didn't have it, because they hadn't sold any machines yet. 

In fact, none of the machines that had been invented were getting off the ground. There was a terrific amount of skepticism about the practicality of the machines, and there was a cultural bias against machinery in general ("Luddites") and against women using machinery. Labor unions agitated against their use, as tailors could see these machines would put them out of business. And, Elias Howe, soon to be joined by other patent-owners, began suing for patent infringement and settling for licensing fees. That process slowed the ability of manufacturers to make and innovate machines.

Howe persisted and won his first court case in 1852. In 1853, 1,609 machines were sold in the U.S. In 1860, that number had risen to 31,105, the same year that Howe boasted he had gained $444,000 in profits from licensing fees, nearly $13.5 million in today's dollars. 

The Sewing Machine Combination

In the 1850s, manufacturers were inundated by court cases because there were too many patents which covered individual elements of the working machines. It wasn't just Howe who was suing; it was the owners of many of the smaller patents suing and countersuing one another. This situation is known as a "patent thicket" today.

In 1856, attorney Orlando B. Potter, who represented Grover & Baker, a sewing machine manufacturer who held a patent for a working chain stitch process, had a solution. Potter suggested that the relevant patent owners—Howe, Singer, Grover & Baker, and the most prolific manufacturer of the era, Wheeler and Wilson—should combine their patents into a patent pool. Those four patent-holders collectively owned the patents that covered the 10 elements. Each member of the Sewing Machine Combination would pay into a collective account a $15 license fee for each machine they produced. Those funds were used to build a war chest for ongoing external litigation, and then the rest would be split equitably among the owners.

All of the owners agreed, except for Howe, who wasn't making any machines at all. He was convinced to join the consortium by the promise of a special royalty fee of $5 per machine sold in the United States, and $1 for every machine exported. 

While the Combination faced its own issues, including accusations of being a monopoly, the number of litigated cases did drop and manufacturing of the machines began.

Death and Legacy

After successfully defending his right to a share in the profits of other sewing machine manufacturers, Howe saw his annual income jump from $300 to more than $2,000 dollars a year. 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.

Elias Howe, Jr., died in Brooklyn, New York, on October 3, 1867, a month after his sewing machine patent expired. At the time of his death, his profits from his invention were estimated to total two million dollars, what would be $34 million today. A version of his innovative mechanization of the lock stitch is still available on most modern sewing machines.

Sources

  • "Elias Howe, Jr." Geni. (2018).
  • Jack, Andrew B. "The Channels of Distribution for an Innovation: The Sewing-Machine Industry in America, 1860–1865." Explorations in Entrepreneurial History 9:113–114 (1957).
  • Mossoff, Adam. "The Rise and Fall of the First American Patent Thicket: The Sewing Machine War of the 1850s " Arizona Law Review 53 (2011): 165–211. Print.
  • "Obituary: Elias Howe, Jr." The New York Times (October 5, 1867). Times Machine.
  • Wagner, Stefan. "Are 'Patent Thickets' Smothering Innovation?" Yale Insights, April 22, 2015. Web