Elias Howe

Elias Howe invented of the first American-patented sewing machine.

Dressmaker using sewing machine
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Elias Howe was born in Spencer, Massachusetts on July 9, 1819. After he lost his factory job in the Panic of 1837, Howe moved from Spencer to Boston, where he found work in a machinist's shop. It was there that Elias Howe began tinkering with the idea of inventing a mechanical sewing machine.

First Attempt: The Lockstitch Sewing Machine

Eight years later, Elias Howe demonstrated his machine to the public. At 250 stitches a minute, his lockstitch mechanism outstitched the output of five hand sewers with a reputation for speed. Elias Howe patented his lockstitch sewing machine on September 10, 1846, in New Hartford, Connecticut.

Competition and Patent Struggles

For the next nine years, Howe struggled, first to inspire interest in his machine, then to protect his patent from imitators who refused to pay Howe royalties for using his designs. His lockstitch mechanism was adopted by others who were developing sewing machines of their own.

During this period, Isaac Singer invented the up-and-down motion mechanism, and Allen Wilson developed a rotary hook shuttle. Howe fought a legal battle against other inventors for his patent rights and won his suit in 1856.


After successfully defending his right to a share in the profits of other sewing machine manufacturers, Howe saw his annual income jump from three hundred to more than two hundred thousand dollars a year. Between 1854 and 1867, Howe earned close to two million dollars from his invention. 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.