July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
A 150-year-old invention keeps on remaking the world
As the stock market has bounced up and down this year, there has been much talk about the Old Economy and the New Economy. But the Old Economy, however temporarily unfashionable it may be on Wall Street, is still very much with us. Buildings are still made of steel and concrete. Oil and the internal-combustion engine still dominate transportation. You are probably reading this article by the light of an invention Thomas Edison first demonstrated in 1879.
And there are many parts of Planet Earth that even the Old Economy has not yet reached, where the people still live in what we might call the old Old Economy. This is a system of subsistence agriculture and hand labor, of grinding poverty for the many and vast wealth for the few. That was the condition of the Western world 250 years ago, and the only way out of it is to do what the West did then: industrialize. An industrial economy creates wealth much faster than does a nonindustrial one, and if history is any guide, however rich those at the top of the economic ladder become, the rest of society becomes much richer as well.
Obviously, the process of building an industrial economy has to start somewhere. In the Western world it began with cloth, when the manufacture of textiles was industrialized beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century in the English Midlands. Today, however, when the textile industry is highly mechanized and capital-intensive, the manufacture of clothes often is the starting point for industrialization.
Clothes is one of those curious English words that have no singular. The reason is simple enough: The singular used to be cloth . Clothes, after all, are just pieces of cloth sewn together to match the body’s contours. Sewing is about as ancient a technology as still exists, but while cloth making was industrialized very early on, clothes continued to be made by hand for almost another century. Someone had to invent a practical sewing machine.
Once it was invented, clothes making rapidly became industrialized, because the technology was inexpensive (one sewing machine per worker, who supplied the power) and easy for uneducated workers to master. Wherever there has been a large supply of cheap labor—New York’s vast immigrant population late in the nineteenth century, the Third World today—the sewing machine has often proved the first rung up the ladder out of poverty. Its development was thus one of the triumphs of the early Industrial Revolution, as important an engine of wealth creation in its way as the railroad.
It was no simple matter to devise a means to do mechanically what had always required delicate and complex movements by the human hand. Like many important inventions of the early nineteenth century, the sewing machine was the work of many. But so often the historical credit has largely gone to the man who finally put the pieces together, Isaac Merritt Singer.
Singer is a classic example of Adam Smith’s invisible hand at work. He was an extraordinarily self-centered man who used others shamelessly, especially women, but his pursuit of his own fortune greatly improved the standard of living of millions, particularly women.
He was born in upstate New York in 1811, the youngest son of Adam Singer, who had been born in Germany in 1753. The family fell apart when Isaac was ten. That year his mother, having apparently had enough of her husband’s chronic philandering, divorced Adam—a rare proceeding in early-nineteenth-century America—and moved to a Quaker community in Albany. She never saw her family again. Adam quickly remarried, and he lived to be 102.
Singer was more or less on his own by the time he was twelve, when he moved to burgeoning Rochester, where he apparently lived with an older brother. He managed to get a little schooling but would never write with fluidity or even good spelling. At nineteen he became an apprentice in a machine shop, where he quickly demonstrated a talent for mechanics. Isaac Singer was a born tinkerer. Unfortunately, he wanted to be an actor, but while undoubtedly possessed of considerable personal charm, he had at best only a pedestrian talent.
The pattern of his life established itself while he was still a teenager. He would act when he could and take jobs as a mechanic when he had to. In between he pursued women with the same cheerful relentlessness as had his father. He had married in 1830, when he was nineteen, and by 1837 he had two children to support. In Baltimore, touring with an acting company, he met an attractive young woman and soon became engaged to her. Needless to say, he did not bother to tell her he was already married. Not long after he returned to New York, his wife went back to her parents. The marriage was over, although he did send her money when he had any.
Singer’s fiancée then appeared in New York expecting to marry the young, handsome, and charming man who had won her heart. Singer had no choice but to tell her at least some version of the truth, and he persuaded her to accept the situation. Their first child was born on July 27, 1837, and nine more followed, but he never did marry her (indeed, he left her for someone else whom he did marry, divorcing his first wife in 1860), and he also fathered numerous children by other women.
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.
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.