The machine that made
him a legend in his own time could do the work of five men, or shall
we say, five women, since it was the women who used his machine.
His invention was the sewing machine. His name was Elias Howe.
Elias was the first American to receive a patent for the type of
sewing machine that's used today, although many changes have been
made to his original version. He received U.S. Patent 4,750 in 1846.
The story of how he came to invent the sewing machine is
interesting. While working in a mill on his father's farm, Elias
overheard someone say that "anyone who can invent a practical sewing
machine will be a very rich man." So he set off to do something that
drains the bank accounts of many men -- he got married.
But it was his wife who provided the inspiration for Elias'
invention, as she took up sewing to help support the family. Seeing
her sew inspired him to build his first sewing machine.
Sometimes the person who invents the product isn't the one who is
able to capitalize on it. For example, RCA became synonymous with
radio and TV in the early 1900s, yet RCA didn't invent either radio
or TV. Likewise, Isaac Singer's name is the one that became
synonymous with the sewing machine, even though Isaac Singer didn't
But Singer did make some important improvements to Howe's
hand-cranked sewing machine. Singer's version included the
up-and-down motion as well as the foot pedal, known as a treadle.
Singer's version was also the first one to succeed commercially.
In 1854, the courts ruled that Singer had infringed upon Howe's
patent. As a result, Singer had to pay Howe a $25 royalty for each
machine that he sold, making Howe a very wealthy man. He earned more
than $2 million between 1854 and 1867, which was a huge amount of
money in the mid-1800s. It was enough to make him the
fourth-wealthiest man in America (by comparison, the
fourth-wealthiest man in America today is worth $18 billion). Howe
donated some of his money to equip Union soldiers in the Civil War,
and he also served as a private in the war.
[to top of second column]
Isaac Singer became the first inventor to mass-produce sewing
machines, while his business partner, Edward Clark, invented
something just as useful as the sewing machine. Clark created the
world's first installment plan, which allowed their customers to pay
a portion of the total price on a weekly basis rather than having to
pay for a new machine all at once.
The sewing machine wasn't Elias Howe's only major invention. In a
previous story in this column, we talked about how the inventor of
the zipper, Whitcomb Judson, improved upon someone else's version.
That inventor was Elias Howe. Howe was granted a patent for his
version of the zipper in 1851, which was five years before he
patented his sewing machine and 40 years before Judson reinvented
the zipper. Unlike Judson, though, Howe decided not to try to
commercialize his version of the zipper. (The
last major invention of the alphabet has a few twists to it)
Then Isaac Singer improved upon Elias Howe's version of the
sewing machine. So Elias Howe could have been known as both the
father of the zipper and the father of the sewing machine. Maybe his
success with the sewing machine is the reason he abandoned his
zipper invention, although no one knows for sure.
Paul Niemann's column is syndicated
to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention
Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2008