Who Invented the Safety Pin?

Kilt pin, close-up (B&W)
Peter Dazeley/ The Image Bank/ Getty images

The modern safety pin was the invention of Walter Hunt. A safety pin is is an object that's commonly used to fasten clothing (i.e. cloth diapers) together. The very first pins used for clothing date back to the Mycenaeans during the 14th century BCE and were called fibulae.

Early Life

Walter Hunt was born in in 1796 in upstate New York . and earned a degree in masonry. He worked as a farmer in the mill town of Lowville, New York, and his work involved designing more efficient machinery for the local mills.

He received his first patent in 1826 after moving to New York City to work as a mechanic.

Hunt's other inventions included a forerunner of the Winchester repeating rifle, a successful flax spinner, knife sharpener, streetcar bell, hard-coal-burning stove, artificial stone, road sweeping machinery, velocipedes, ice ploughs and mail making machinery. He is also well known for inventing a commercially unsuccessful sewing machine.

Invention of the Safety Pin

The safety pin was invented while Hunt was twisting a piece of wire and trying to think of something that would help him pay off a fifteen dollar debt. He later sold his patent rights to the safety pin for four hundred dollars to the man that he owed the money to.

On April 10, 1849, Hunt was granted US patent #6,281 for his safety pin. Hunt's pin was made from one piece of wire, which was coiled into a spring at one end and a separate clasp and point at the other end, allowing the point of the wire to be forced by the spring into the clasp.

It was the first pin to have a clasp and spring action and Hunt claimed that it was designed to keep fingers safe from injury, hence the name.

Hunt's Sewing Machine

In 1834, Hunt built America's first sewing machine, which was also the first eye-pointed needle sewing machine. He later lost interest in patenting his sewing machine because he believed the invention would cause unemployment.

Competing Sewing Machines

The eye pointed needle sewing machine was later re-invented by Elias Howe of Spencer, Massachusetts and patented by Howe in 1846.

In both Hunt's and Howe's sewing machine, a curved eye-pointed needle passed the thread through the fabric in an arc motion. On the other side of the fabric a loop was created and a second thread carried by a shuttle running back and forth on a track passed through the loop, creating a lockstitch.

Howe's design was copied by Isaac Singer and others, which lead to extensive patent litigation. A court battle in the 1850s showed conclusively that Howe was not the originator of the eye-pointed needle and credited Hunt with the invention.

The court case was started by Howe against Singer, the then largest manufacturer of sewing machines. Singer disputed Howe's patent rights by claiming that the invention was already some 20 years old and that Howe should not have been able to claim royalties for it. However, since Hunt had abandoned his sewing machine and not patented it, Howe's patent was upheld by the courts in 1854.

Isaac Singer's machine was somewhat different. Its needle moved up and down, rather than sideways. And it was powered by a treadle rather than a hand crank.

However, it used the same lockstitch process and a similar needle. Howe died in 1867, the year his patent expired.