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If Elias Howe Invented the Sewing Machine, Why is it Called a Singer?

Sorry ... the history books aren't quite right. Elias Howe did not invent the first sewing machine. In fact, if you define sewing machine as "a machine that can sew items in a practical and usable manner", then he didn't invent a sewing machine at all!

Actually, the first sewing machine patent was received in 1755 by Charles Weisenthal in London. Technically, his machine did embroidery, but it was the first to recognize that an eye-pointed needle did not need to pass entirely through a garment. This machine was not labor or time-saving, though, and was thus not a practical solution as a "machine that can be used for sewing".

Another machine was invented in Paris in 1804 by Thomas Stone and John Henderson -- it involved a pair of pincers on either side of a piece of material. The pincers would grab a needle as it passed through the material. This machine was no faster than hand-sewing and was not accepted as a solution, either.

In 1790, Englishman Thomas Saint patented a machine that had many of the features of a real sewing machine: an overhanging arm, a straight, perpendicular needle, a horizontal cloth table, and needle fed from a spool. It's doubtful whether or not Saint ever really built his machine, though. A version made in 1873 from his original patent plans did not work.

In 1830, Frenchman Barthelemy Thimonnier patented the next sewing machine. This one actually worked -- although it was a huge device set in a frame similar to a wooden loom.

It was able to sew a straight chainstitch and was about as fast as a hand sewer. By 1831, Thimonnier had about 80 seamstresses in his tailoring shop using his machines to sew uniforms for the French army. The machines could sew about 100 stitches a minute by that time.

Technically, Thimonnier invented the first machine that could be used to really accomplish some sewing.

Unfortunately, for him, the social structure of the time was not ready to accept this type of technilogical advance. Fearful for their jobs, mobs of journeyman tailors rushed his shop and destroyed his machines. Thimonnier tried at least twice more to introduce his machines (now improved to 300 stitches a minute), but similar bad luck dogged him. He finally gave up and died a poor man in 1857.

In 1834, the sewing machine was invented again in New York by Walter Hunt. Hunt's machine was a major improvement over previous one's. Instead of stitching the easily unraveled chainstitch like all previous machines, Hunt's could produce a lockstitch. He did this by using two thread spools: one above, one below. He used a shuttle to push the lower thread through the loop caused by the needle pushing through the fabric. This same principle has since been used by all successful sewing machines.

Unfortunately, for Hunt (and others, it turns out), he neglected to patent this machine with the two threads and a shuttle system. Hunt was also a Quaker; when his daughter suggested his machine would do harm to seamstresses who might be put out of work, Hunt seemed to agree. He took no further interest in his sewing machine.

Not long after, in 1839, a Bostonian machine shop owner named Ari Davis was approached by two men who wanted to build a knitting machine. During their discussions, Davis suggested they try a sewing machine instead. The men figured such a machine would be a financial bonanza and Davis attempted -- and failed -- to create such a machine.

The noteworthy part of this Boston venture was that Davis had an apprentice who took an interest in this matter. The apprentice's name was Elias Howe.

Howe began trying to develop a sewing machine on his own. He came up with the idea of using two threads and a shuttle -- the same idea Hunt had used ten years earlier. Howe continued to develop his machine; by 1845 he had completed a machine that was able to perform all the stitchwork to assemble two suits of woolen clothes. In 1846 Howe received a patent on his device.

The journal, "Scientific American" was impressed as they praised Howe's "extraordinary invention". Perhaps Hunt would have received similar praise had he bothered to patent his device more than ten years earlier.

Unfortunately, "Scientific American" were the only ones impressed. Howe spent three years trying to drum up interest in both American and England. By 1849, he was basically broke. His wife died (and he had to borrow the money to reach her bedside before she died). He attended her funeral in a borrowed suit; he then heard that the ship containing all his household goods was wrecked and all his goods were lost. Discouraged, He gave up his sewing machine quest and took a machine shop job for a weekly wage.

Actually, Howe's machine failed for a good reason, it was not quite a practical solution. His machine did not have a presser foot; in order to sew fabric, the pieces had to be matched inside a metal frame. This frame was then attached to the machine and guided the stitching. Once you reached the end of the frame, it had to be removed and the fabric reset. This meant that A) no continuous stitching was possible, and B) you could only stitch in straight lines, you could not follow a curve. Because of this, Howe's machine could not be considered a serious solution to the sewing problem and was therefore not a true and practical "sewing machine".

In 1850 a familiar name entered the sewing machine world -- Isaac Singer. I think that Singer should be considered the inventor of the first practical sewing machine -- it could stitch continuous lines, it could stitch around curves, it used a pressor foot, and it was a marketable solution available for a reasonable price.

Other inventors also introduced sewing machines to compete with Singer -- and the sewing machine industry was born.

However, Elias Howe was not quite finished. He noticed that all sewing machines used two threads and a shuttle.

He held a patent on this method (even though Hunt had invented it first a decade earlier) Howe then embraced that great American business plan, "Those who can, do -- those who can't, sue!"

Howe began a vigorous legal campaign against all sewing machine manufacturers. It's interesting to note that it was impossible to build a practical sewing machine solely by using Howe's patents. It took many patented items (they soon ranged into the 100's) in order to construct a workable sewing machine. Still, the idea of two threads and a shuttle was also an essential component of a usable sewing machine.

The courts agreed. Howe soon received royalties of up to $25 per every sewing machine sold. Without selling a single machine of his own design, Howe became rich.

Singer and others tried to oppose him. They uncovered Walter Hunt's earlier work and tried to find some proof that was presentable in court in order to break Howe's patent. Unfortunately, when Hunt lost interest in his device, he neglected to keep any of the devices he had already constructed or notes of their workings.

Although Hunt was first, it was impossible to prove in court and Howe's suit held up.

So -- it's apparent that Elias Howe did not invent the first sewing machine. He didn't even invent the first sewing device. What he did do was be the first to patent a component that was used by the real inventor of the first workable, usable, and marketable sewing machine, Isaac Singer.

Submitted by:

Joey Robichaux

Joey Robichaux operates the "Needlecrafting" website at http://www.needlecrafting.com. This article may be reprinted provided this attribution clause is included.





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