September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
On September 10 Elias Howe of Cambridge, Massachusetts, received U.S. Patent No. 4,750 for his “Improvement in Sewing Machines.” As the title indicates, Howe’s device was not the first attempt to automate sewing; such machines had been a favorite of inventors in many countries since at least the 1750s. Most of them were too slow to compete with hand labor; one required users to transfer the thread between two needles after every stitch. Yet efficient sewing machines had been built, in Europe and the United States, only to be withdrawn in the face of opposition from hand sewers. Howe was the first patentee to put as much energy into promotion as he had into invention; in one demonstration he outsewed the combined output of five seamstresses with a single machine.
Howe’s way to riches was far from smooth. He tried unsuccessfully to interest manufacturers in England and eventually had to pawn his patent rights for the fare home. Rivals pirated his design while Howe labored as a journeyman machinist. Isaac M. Singer came up with an important improvement, replacing the horizontal needle with a vertical one, then refused to pay Howe any royalties. Not until 1854 were Howe’s rights legally established, and not until the Civil War’s large uniform orders would the machines become widespread.