Sunday, September 10, 2006
This very strange looking device is believe it or not: the first patented sewing machine. The invention was made and patented by the gentleman pictured to the right. His name was Elias Howe. Elias Howe was born in 1819 in the town of Spencer, Massachusetts. He had apprenticed at the age of sixteen then lost his job in the Great Panic of 1837-- a precursor to the Great Depression of 1929. Actually the very first individual to invent a functional sewing machine was a French Taylor by the name Of Barthelemy Thimonnier in 1830. But the French tailors of the time feared that they would have been put out of business by the labor saving machine and so they stormed and destroyed his eighty machine plant, setting it on fire. The poor inventor fled with his life and died in bankruptcy. Ah the poor French-- they simply wouldn't recognize genius if it bit them. I illustrate that point with the fact that the French executed the last criminal by guillotine-- not back in 1900, or 1930, or even 1950, but on this date September 10th in 1977. Blows the mind! Another inventor by the name of Walter Hunt feared what had happened to the poor Frenchman and abandoned his idea. Ario Davis, Howe's employer at the time and a Puritan bible thumper thought it would be immoral to invent something that would take jobs-- something God would surely punish! Well, back to Mr. Howe, he gets layed off from work by the same Mr. Davis. While unemployed he watched his faithful wife take in sewing to pay the bills. Watching her at work, he realized that no machine would be able to duplicate the motions of hand and arm in sewing. Instead, he hit upon a process that used thread from two different sources. A needle with its eye at the point would push through the cloth creating a loop of thread on the far side; then a shuttle would slip through the loop creating a tight lock stitch. But as genius as this sounds he was overwhelmed with trouble. His workshop burned down and when he started from scratch his machines were priced at three hundred dollars. That was a lot of money in 1845. Even when a demonstration he held in public view proved without a doubt out sewed five seamstresses. He couldn't sell a single machine. He fled to England but was swindled out of his British royalties. He pawned his prototype to get home to America only to have his faithful wife die suddenly-- the inspiration for the invention itself! If that wasn't bad enough, upon his return in 1850, he found the sewing machine business flourishing , unsurping his original invention. The leader of this pack of thieves was none other Isaac Singer who's real genius was marketing-- after all he simply had adapted Howe's patent by employing a needle that went up and down instead of sideways and was powered by a treadle rather than a hand crank. Funded by a mortgage on his father's farm, Howe went to court to sue the infringers and years his patent was upheld in 1854 and Singer was ordered to pay Howe fifteen grand. Rather than face similar prosecution, the other sewing machine inventors agreed to give Howe a five dollar royalty for each machine sold in the United States and one dollar for each one sold in Europe. The deal brought Howe two million dollars-- which in the 1850's would be like thirty million dollars today. He helped finance the Civil War and helped build a college with the money, but died at the age of forty-eight-- the very year his patent expired. Patents are not copyrights: they last only twenty-one years! My mother was an avid sewer and used to brag how wonderful her Singer Sewing Machine was-- Ha! If she only knew!