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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
All this love cost the inventor money. Indeed, by early in 1851, his expenses were so considerable that the partnership of Singer and Zieber was obliged to open its arms to a third man, Barzillan Ransom, an elderly gentleman from Brooklyn who manufactured cloth bags for salt and was sufficiently impressed by Singer’s machine to tender promissory notes worth up to $10,000 in return for a one-third share in the business. But Ransom did not last long. To Singer he was merely another pigeon. Ransom, on the other hand, found Singer an extraordinary specimen, of a kind he had never before had an opportunity to inspect at close range. In March he termed Singer “singular”; by April he had concluded Singer was a “dictator#38; #8230; insufferable and unless he alters his hand promptly we must separate.” By May he had withdrawn—without having paid his notes.
Here was a blow, but there was worse to come. Elias Howe, angered by the success of various sewingmachine manufacturers and thoroughly embittered by a personal tragedy that he blamed on his earlier poverty, had turned vengefully litigious. He brandished suits, one after another, for patent infringement. From Singer he demanded $25,000. Payment of such a sum was of course out of the question, even presuming Singer for a moment believed he had infringed. He was certain he had not; but he needed a lawyer to prove his case, and he had no money even for a lawyer. He appealed to Ambrose Jordan, the attorney who had accompanied him to Washington when he applied for a patent. Would Jordan, Singer inquired, handle the case—and any subsequent litigation—for a share in the business? Jordan refused, for he found Singer personally distasteful. Instead, he referred him to his junior partner and son-in-law, Edward Clark. A former Sunday school teacher, a graduate of Williams at a time when that college’s undergraduate body consisted almost wholly of prospective clergymen and missionaries, Clark nevertheless, as we have seen, accepted.
There were now once again three partners—Singer, Zieber, and Clark—and all three, so unlike in other ways, were united in one respect: each thought there was one partner too many. Zieber, the would-be capitalist, considered Clark a usurper. Neither Clark nor Singer could see that Zieber was of any earthly use. An open rupture, however, was averted when Zieber fell sick of undulant fever; in the fear that he might die and leave a widow harassed by debts, he consented to sell his interest in the company to Singer and Clark for $6,000—an adequate return on the $40 he had originally invested, but microscopic in terms of what the interest was soon to be worth.∗
∗ In an account of this incident which he wrote some time later —for he survived the fever—Zieber was well-nigh incoherent with rage. He had, he contended, been “robbed,” “victimized” by scoundrels. He claimed that he would never have agreed to sell out for a paltry $6,000 had not Singer told him: “The Doctor thinks you won’t get over [your sickness]. Don’t you want to give up your interest in the business altogether?” Not until later, Zieber claimed, did he discover that Singer had never met the physician and that the physician had never said any such thing. In his account of the affair, however, Zieber reveals himself to be a well-meaning but naïve man, pathetically fated to lose out under the economic code of the nineteenth century—survival of the fittest. “During the month of June, 1860,” he wrote, “I disposed of the stock on hand, and went afterwards to Montevideo.”
Clark, once he had decided to stay with the firm despite Singer’s gaudy peccadilloes, turned out to be precisely the man for the job. By that time he had discovered (or thought he had) how far the warmth of Singer’s nature could lead him; but he had discovered as well that Singer’s machine was so far superior to any other on the market that, if all went well, he would soon be a very wealthy man indeed. Despite his wife’s advice, then, and to protect his stake, Clark plunged enthusiastically into the welter of lawsuits that had been let loose by Elias Howe’s charges of infringement.
By 1852 there were a dozen or more manufacturers elbowing their way into the sewing-machine business, each seeking any means, fair or foul, to wring an advantage from the rest. Of these, the largest were I. M. Singer & Co., Wheeler & Wilson Co., and Grover & Baker Co. In addition, Howe, although at first he manufactured no machines, bulked big because of his patent. From 1852 until late in 1856 each of these parties zestfully sued every other in what the press hailed as “the sewing machine war.”
It all began quietly enough with a suit brought by Howe against an unimportant company, but by 1854, having won a series of minor victories, Howe was able to force I. M. Singer & Co. to pay $28,000 in settlement of past claims and, furthermore, to pay a license fee of $10 on every machine sold in the future. By that time Clark had cunningly purchased the rights to a number of early patents, in consequence of which he was ready to bring suit, on behalf of I. M. Singer & Co., against all his rivals. In October, 1854, Clark wondered whether, like himself, those rivals might not be wearying of the struggle. “There are many cogent reasons,” he wrote to Howe, “why, in the future, we should act cordially together in respect to the maintenance and enforcement of our various patents.” But this reasoning failed; he was obliged to club his mulish competitors over the ears with lawsuits for two more years.