The sewing machine patent war


September 10, 1846: The sewing machine patent war


By the time Elias Howe, a part-time inventor and full-time scoundrel, received U.S. Patent No. 4,750 for a sewing machine, he and his family were at a loss. The machine he hoped would revolutionize the production of textile goods in New England was seen by the public as a mere mechanical marvel, a curiosity capable of sewing seven times faster than the most experienced seamstress. Moreover, its effectiveness frightened tailors and its price – hand-built for $300 – made textile manufacturers skeptical of its practical application. When his investor, a close friend, decided he could no longer support Howe, Howe decided to look overseas.

Howe built another machine and shipped it to England with his brother, Amasa, to solicit funds. But the best Amasa could do was an arrangement with a corset maker, William Thomas, who persuaded Howe to follow his brother to England to adapt the machine to corset production. When Howe and Thomas had a falling out, Howe and his family were still broke – so broke he had to pawn the original machine and its letters patent, just to have enough money to repatriate it.

Landing in New York in 1849, Howe discovered that in his absence, imitations of his patented sewing machine were being manufactured throughout the industrial North. Some were still displayed as entertainment at fairs and exhibitions. But some were deployed to make shirts and pants in a growing number of factories and sweatshops.

Howe decided to enforce his patent. With the help of a new investor, he bought back his original machine and letters patent and began notifying major sewing machine manufacturers. Howe demanded that they cease their infringement or pay him licensing fees; and with the buoyancy of the sewing machine market, the most readily accepted.

howe sewing machine

The first Howe sewing machine. Creative Commons, State Library of Massachusetts.

One exception was Isaac Merritt Singer, who decided to force Howe to defend his patent in court. Their explosive trial took place in 1854. Singer, a former actor and entrepreneur, argued that Howe’s invention – the unique use of a shuttle and a curved, double-threaded needle – was just a marginal improvement of devices created before his. But after a lengthy litigation that generated 3,575 pages of motions, depositions and briefs, Howe – now on the way to becoming a millionaire – was declared the undisputed inventor of the sewing machine.

The establishment of Howe’s patent primacy did not bring peace among sewing machine manufacturers, however. In what amounted to the first patent war, sewing machine manufacturers began to sue for infringement of patents – hundreds of them – granted for improvements on Howe’s machine.

An agreement was made in 1856 which united Howe and the leading manufacturers into a confederation, which they called the Sewing Machine Combination. The group agreed to end lawsuits against each other, allow common use of their various patents, and sue infringers who violated patents in their patent pool. Until 1877, when most of their patents expired, the combination sewing machine was both feared and despised. But their overlapping claims are considered the first “patent thicket” and their agreement the end of the first patent war.

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