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Sewing And Reaping A Fortune
A 150-year-old invention keeps on remaking the world
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
He continued his dual career, inventing a rock drill in 1839 and selling the patent for two thousand dollars. Despite that windfall, the family, or rather families, lived a hand-to-mouth existence until Singer, approaching middle age, finally gave up the stage and took up mechanics full-time. He invented a machine for carving wooden type and interested a businessman named George B. Zieber in marketing it. They took it to Boston and rented space in a machine shop to show it to potential clients. Several printers looked at it, but none wanted to buy it. Zieber and Singer were just about out of money when destiny called.
At first Isaac Singer was reluctant to pay attention to what he saw as such a “paltry business.”
The machine shop where they rented space had been making a line of sewing machines, but they seldom worked. The design was by Elias Howe, who had obtained a patent on it in 1846. It produced a lock stitch using a curved needle for one thread and a shuttle that moved in a circular fashion for the other. The curved needle was very fragile, and when the machine worked at all, the cloth had to be reset after every few stitches. It was, in fact, more trouble than it was worth.
Singer was reluctant to pay attention to such a “paltry business,” as he called it. Also, he didn’t like the possible social effects. “You want to do away with the only thing that keeps women quiet, their sewing!” he told Zieber, as recounted the biographer Ruth Brandon in Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance .
But being broke can be a powerful stimulant to creative endeavor, and Singer was soon designing an improved machine, one using a straight needle and a back-and-forth shuttle motion. Most important, it fed the cloth through continuously, allowing much quicker operation, seams of any length, and the ability to sew on a curve.
Late one night, with both men exhausted, he was finally ready to try it out. While Zieber held a lantern, Singer worked the machine. But the stitches were much too loose. Discouraged, the two began walking back to the cheap hotel room they shared.
“Sick at heart,” Singer remembered afterward, “… we sat down on a pile of boards, and Zieber asked me if I had noticed that the loose loops of thread on the upper side of the cloth came from the needle. It then flashed upon me that I had forgotten to adjust the tension upon the needle thread. Zieber and I went back to the shop. I adjusted the tension, tried the machine, and sewed five stitches perfectly. …” Isaac Singer had a sewing machine like none before it: It worked.
Singer’s machine was an immediate hit. It is not hard to see why. A shirt that took a seamstress fourteen hours to sew by hand could now be produced in an hour and a quarter. Many clothing workers feared for their livelihoods. But of course the effect of the sewing machine was to enlarge their business, not destroy it. As the price of ready-made clothes dropped, the increasing market for them made up for the lower price many times over, one of the fundamental effects by which capitalism has made the world a richer place.
The only problem for Singer and his partners was the patent situation. Elias Howe had a patent on a sewing machine, even though his model was not a practical device. Isaac Singer had a practical machine but no patent on the entire device. With big money now at stake, a court fight was inevitable. When the dust settled, the result was a patent pool, the first use of that very handy arrangement in a mechanically complex age.
Isaac Singer died in 1875, aged sixty-four, leaving an estate of between thirteen and fifteen million dollars, a vast fortune at the time. In his will he tried—as he had, in his way, in life…to provide for his children and some of the numerous women who had shared his bed. Not surprisingly, newspapers had a field day. “Under the terms of the will,” the New York Herald gleefully reported, “some twenty or more of his offspring by diverse and sundry mothers are entitled to an average of about $200,000 each.”
But while the sewing machine made Isaac Singer a great fortune, it made the lives of countless homemakers and factory workers better too. It is still doing so in many countries that are just beginning to enter the modern world.