Happy National Sewing Machine Day
What would we have done without sewing machines? Can you imagine in this day and age sewing all your clothes with needle and thread? Or having tailors make all your clothes for you? Well, the sewing machine opened up a whole new industry. But it wasn’t without some hard times for the inventors.
The History and Bad Luck of Sewing Machine Inventors
Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal, a German-born engineer working in England was awarded the first British patent for a mechanical device to aid the art of sewing, in 1755. His invention consisted of a double pointed needle with an eye at one end.
Cabinet-maker and English inventor, Thomas Saint, received the first patent for a design of a sewing machine in 1790. Saint meant for his machine to sew on leather to make shoes and belts and that sort of clothing. His actual sewing machine he might of invented was never found but drawings of his idea were by William Newton Wilson, in 1874. With the drawings, Wilson built a working model of Saint’s sewing machine. That first sewing machine is now in the London Science Museum.
In 1814, Viennese tailor Josef Madersperger was granted a patent on a sewing machine that would sew in only straight lines. He wasn’t entirely happy with his machine and never tried to sell it commercially. Sadly he died penniless in a “poor house.”
Walter Hunt, who also invented the nail-making machine, a plow, a bullet, a bicycle and the safety pin started working on a plan for a sewing machine. In 1832, he designed a machine that used two needles, one with an eye in its point, to produce a straight “lock stitch” seam. Worried that his invention might put seamstresses and tailors out of work, he didn’t follow through with his machine and never filed for a patent.
Later in 1832, a tailor named Elias Howe, began working on a sewing machine similar to Walter Hunts and received a patent for his design in 1846. He even put on a competition to show off how great his machine was, the man-vs-machine challenge, where he beat five seamstresses with work that was faster and in every way better quality. His machine was seen as scandalous, and Howe never did attract any buyers or investors. But he kept trying out new designs.
Howe went on to make some bad business decisions, and pick some untrustworthy business partners, and went on a trip overseas that left Howe destitute in London. His wife’s health was starting to go downhill and he had no money to travel back to her in America. It seemed like he was going to end up in the poor house like Saint and Thimonnier, He ended up pawning his machines and patent papers to pay for steerage back to the States in 1849. He made it back to her bedside to be with her in her final moments.
To Howe’s dismay, he learned that his sewing machine had been copied and reproduced while he was back in America, and successfully so. He was upset at having his designs copied, so he took all these infringers to court, and won every case.
All the court cases were now over and soon after, Howe was approached with an offer from a machinist named Isaac Singer. Singer had invented his own sewing machine that that was really different from Howe’s. The only similarity was the eye needle. And that same needle cost Singer thousands of dollars in royalties, which had to be paid to Howe, but inspired the country’s first patent pool.
Singer contacted seven other manufactures to share their patents. They needed Howe’s patents as well and they had to agree to Howe’s terms. Howe’s terms stated that every single manufacturer in the United States would pay Howe $25 for every machine sold. Later that commission dropped to $5. But Howe finally got his happily ever after and died a rich man in1867.
Singer also did very well. Singer had a talent for promoting and became the first man to spend more than $1 million dollars a year on advertising. It worked though as Singer is still the most prestigious name in the sewing market today.
So there is the quick history on the evolution of sewing machines. Happy National Sewing Machine Day to you!