The Eccentric Engineer: Dreaming the Sewing Machine

Many people have tried to mechanize sewing, but Elias Howe is known as the inventor of the modern lockstitch sewing machine.

Elias Howe dreamed of a career in the textile industry and became an apprentice in a textile factory in 1835. However, his ambitions did not materialize as he had hoped. Just two years into his apprenticeship, the financial panic of 1837 bankrupted his factory and he was forced to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he worked in a carding mill before finding an apprenticeship. with a master engineer specializing in the construction and repair of scientific machines. implements.

The combination of a job in precision engineering and a background in fabric production seems to have inspired Howe’s big idea. He will invent a sewing machine. There was a problem with that, of course. The sewing machine had already been invented – many times. The first patented machine appeared in London in 1790, oddly 35 years after another patent for the first sewing machine needle.

There were also problems with these other machines. There’s not much evidence that any of these were ever actually built, and those that were could only produce a short series of seams before requiring a laborious reset. So the title “inventor of the sewing machine” was still up for grabs and Howe wanted it for himself.

His idea was to create a machine that would repeatedly twist two threads together between a fabric to create a lockstitch. This gave him three problems. First, how do you get the two threads to come together without forming a big knot? Second, how do you get the fabric to move forward at a steady pace, and third – perhaps most importantly – how do you get the needle to pull the thread through the fabric?

This last problem may seem the easiest, but the problem with traditional needles was that they had their eye in the wrong place, at the heel. This bothered Howe. Indeed, a somewhat moving retrospective in 1905’s Popular Mechanics asserts that the problem occupied his thoughts day and night and almost begged for it. Maybe all those long nights of worrying made him tired, and that was lucky, because the answer was to come to him in a dream, according to his family’s published story.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when Howe fell asleep he dreamed he was trying to invent a sewing machine, but the odds increased. He was no longer in America, but in a distant country where a brutal king was, for reasons unknown to us, demanding that he make a working sewing machine, or whatever. With only 24 hours to fix the problem, Howe worked through the night, but the solution eluded him.

At dawn, the guards arrived to take him to his execution, but as he sadly walked to his death, he noticed that the guards each carried a spear with a hole near the tip.
That was it! This was where the machine needle eye should be placed. Howe woke with a start at 4 a.m. and ran to his workshop, and by 9 a.m. that morning he had created his first machine needle.

Having had a fairy tale start, one would have hoped it would be straightforward for Howe, but unfortunately not. After obtaining the patent, he tried to interest the sewing trade by organizing a contest pitting his machines against the fastest seamstresses in America. The machine won, but not a single sale resulted. In some ways he was lucky. Another “inventor of the sewing machine”, Barthelemy Thimonnier, had previously set up a factory with 80 machines only for a mob of angry tailors to storm the place and destroy the lot.

Howe’s business was only saved from bankruptcy when a London corset-maker brought him and his brother to England to further develop the machine, but Elias soon returned home, disappointed with the developments.

Here he got another surprise. Sewing machines were now everywhere – all using his patent without his permission. In particular, the Singer Company was selling an almost identical copy, and Howe was forced to defend its patent in a case that lasted five years. Curiously, in this case of small inventor against big company, Howe won and Singer was forced to hand over substantial royalties. That’s unusual, unless you’re the Englishman John Fisher, who patented a working sewing machine in 1844, the year before Howe, but misclassified it, it couldn’t be found. when the legal proceedings began.

At this point, the American Civil War intervened and Howe spent much of his windfall equipping his Union regiment. Just two years after being discharged in 1865, he died aged just 48.

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