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Isaac Singer And His Wonderful Sewing Machine
An erratic genius and his sober-sided partner made their product a household necessity and built fortunes which their numerous progeny have spent in ways both beneficent and bizarre
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
The circumstances of the invention itself are obscured by clouds of contention. Zieber later deprecated Singer’s role, but his was clearly a prejudiced statement. The canonical account of Singer’s triumph, published a quarter century later, bore the inventor’s name as author, but also the unmistakable, ghostly trace of a company publicity man. It is like all such accounts: the humble man of talent works feverishly (eighteen and twenty hours a day), single-mindedly (only one meal a day), for a ridiculously brief time (only eleven days—for, after all, how long would forty dollars last?); at length the parts are assembled on the eleventh night; the assembled machine repeatedly refuses to function, whilst one by one the workmen take their leave, as though from the proverbial sinking ship; the inventor despairs; a chance remark from a bystander leads to the Hash of realization of what has been wrong; the tiny adjustment is made, and—eureka!
Whether all this is blarney or not, one stubborn fact stands out: Isaac Singer had developed the first sewing machine that would work.
Nor is it possible to ascribe the invention to the luck of a rascal. Singer’s was a brilliant, perceptive, and original design. Andrew B. Jack of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose studies of early sewing-machine history were aided by examination of all the Singer Company’s early letter books, has stated that, to be practical, the device must include ten features: (1) lock stitch; (2) eye-pointed needle; (3) shuttle for second thread, vibratory or double-pointed; (4) continuous thread from spools; (5) horixontal table; (6) overhanging arm; (7) continuous feed, synchronous with needle motion; (8) thread or tension controls, giving slack thread as needed; (9) presser foot; and (10) ability to sew in a straight or curving line. Of all these features, only the ninth and tenth were invented by Singer. Elias Howe had originated the first, second, and fourth; other mechanics, notably J. Bachelder and A. B. Wilson, were responsible for the others; but theirs, like all the early machines, were crude and flawed. Only Singer’s embraced all ten features.
Singer’s design, which has survived substantially intact, was a radical departure from those of all his contemporaries, but it worked; it was, moreover, adaptable to a variety of jobs, whether in the home or the factory. In contrast, Howe’s machine could sew only eighteen stitches before the operator was obliged to remove the cloth for a fresh start; and his tension device was imperfect, so that the thread broke repeatedly. “Credit for the invention of the sewing-machine,” Jack declares, “must go to Isaac Merritt Singer.” It is difficult to overestimate the importance of his accomplishments.
On the heels of his achievement, Singer visibly expanded. His voice, always resonant, now took on a note of authority quite galling to his two associates. When Phelps suggested that, according to their agreement, his name should be linked with Singer’s on the patent application, Singer peremptorily shouted him down. When Zieber attempted to mediate and pacify, Singer hectored both men impartially while privately he urged Zieber to buy up Phclps’s interest. When Zieber refused, Singer did the job himself, paying Phelps off from money belonging to all three. In short, he behaved like a ruthless man of business whilst his partners behaved like gentle chuckleheads.
Elias Howe now appeared. Howe was uncomfortably aware that his own machine was less practical than Singer’s; he was, moreover, in desperate need of money. On the other hand, he had the basic patent, while Singer as yet had none. Manifestly, there was here the basis for a deal if all hands were reasonable. Howe offered Singer and Zieber the American rights to his patent for $2,000. The niceties of patent law were not calculated to appeal to Singer. He reacted in honest and forthright fashion: he would, he declared, boot Howe downstairs if he didn’t clear off the premises under his own steam. In part this gesture must have been motivated by the fact that Singer was finding himself, pleasurably and unexpectedly, with money on his hands. His machine, almost from the start, sold well, and the unit profit was generous. The world was becoming his oyster. He and Zieber decided to move their headquarters from Boston to New York.
The move involved, for the romantic inventor, a measure of intrepidity. Somewhere in New York was his wife, whom he had long since deserted (he called her Maria); there, too, was his consort, Mary Ann Sponsler (he called her Mary); and, under two different roofs, there were his children, who now numbered nine. But he had an imperative motive for settling once again in New York. The fact was, love had come again to Singer, in the shape of Mary Eastwood Walters (he called her Mary), 28 years old and presently the mother of his tenth child. He had not been in New York very long before love came to him again—for he was nothing if not receptive to the little naked god—in the shape of Mary McGonigal (how convenient; he could call her Mary, too), 22 years old and presently the mother of his eleventh child.