Elias Howe, Jr., American Sewing Machine Inventor

Dressmaker using sewing machine
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Elias Howe Jr. (1819-1867) was the inventor of the first successful sewing machine., who battled his competitor Isaac Singer for his copyright and won, moving from abject poverty to a net worth of $2 million dollars in 1867, what would be $34 million today.

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, including Elias. Attended some primary school, but at the age of six, he took his first job, helping his brothers make cards used to manufacture cotton.

At 16, he 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 hemp carding machine. In 1838, Howe moved 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.

Marriage and the Lockstitch Sewing Machine

In 1840, Elias married Elizabeth Jennings Howe, and they had three children, Jane Robinson Howe, Simon Ames Howe, and Julia Maria Howe. In 1843, he began inventing a new sewing machine. Howe's machine was not the first sewing machine: an unbuilt patent was issued to Englishman Thomas Sant in 1790; and in 1829, Frenchman Barthelemy Thimonnier invented and manufactured a machine. Thimonnier's business came to an end when 200 tailors rioted, ransacked his factory and smashed the machines.

Howe's early work was assisted by George Fisher, a coal and wood merchant, who gave him financial support and a place to work on it. In 1845, Elias Howe demonstrated his machine to the public. Its innovative characteristics included a needle threaded at the point, a shuttle to form the lockstitch, and an automatic feed. At 250 stitches a minute, his lockstitch mechanism out-stitched the output of five hand sewers with a reputation for speed, completing in one hour what took the sewers 14.5 hours. Elias Howe patented his lockstitch sewing machine on September 10, 1846, in New Hartford, Connecticut.

Competition and Patent Struggles

In 1846, Howe's brother Amasa went to England to meet William Thomas, a corset, umbrella, and valise manufacturer who bought a machine 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.

The worst offender was Isaac Singer, inventor of the Singer Sewing Machine. Howe sued him, mortgaging his father's farm to pay the attorneys, and in 1854, he won his suit, winning $15,000 from Singer (about $450,000 in today's currency).

During this period, Isaac Singer invented the up-and-down motion mechanism, and Allen Wilson developed a rotary hook shuttle.

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 three hundred to more than two hundred thousand 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 profiles from his invention were estimated to total two million dollars, what would be $34 million today.

Sources

  • "Obituary: Elias Howe, Jr." The New York Times (October 5 1867). Times Machine
  • "Elias Howe, Jr." Geni. (2018)