If Howe Was First, 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
flat 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.
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
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
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
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,