Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Last week I introduced the history of the sewing machine by sharing some of my own sewing history. I could continue my personal sewing story with tales from the quilting class I took yesterday where I felt totally incompetent as I tried free motion quilting for the first time. But I’ll leave that story for another time—after I’ve had some time to develop my skill.

Instead I’ll blog about my promised topic: the sewing machine patent wars.

In1834 the first somewhat successful sewing machine was invented by Walter Hunt. Poor Walter was a brilliant inventor, but a very poor business man. He didn’t pursue a patent for his machine for fear of putting seamstresses out of business. That kindness lost him a fortune. (Walter Hunt also invented the safety pin and sold the invention for the equivalent of $10,000 today. W.R. Grace & Co. acquired the safety pin patent in 1849 and made millions from sales.)

The next sewing machine inventor, Elias Howe, Jr., had a bit more business acumen than Walter Hunt. In May of 1846, Elias was awarded a patent for a lock-stitch machine using two threads, a shuttle, and a curved needle with a point at the bottom end. Suspicion was rife that he took ideas from Walter Hunt’s invention, but that was never proven. 

Elias tried to sell his machine in Europe, but to no avail. His patent machine never worked well. In fact, it was only after a lot of modification that it stitched at all. When he returned to America, he discovered several companies making sewing machines using ideas that were similar to his. That made him angry, and he began taking people to court.

Despite the ongoing court battles, Elias’ lockstitch mechanism continued to be adopted by others who were developing innovations of their own. Isaac Singer, a name most of us recognize, invented an up-and-down motion mechanism instead of one that went side-to-side. His was the first truly successful sewing machine, and it went into mass production in the 1850's. Along with the up and down motion, Singer's machine used a foot treadle. All previous machines used a hand crank.

But Elias Howe wasn't giving up. He sued Isaac Singer for patent infringement and won in 1854. If Walter Hunt had patented his invention, Elias Howe would have lost his case and Isaac Singer would have won. Since he lost, Isaac Singer had to pay Elias Howe patent royalties.

Between 1854 and 1867 Howe earned close to two million dollars from his invention. During the Civil War, he donated a portion of his wealth to equip an infantry regiment for the Union Army as well as serving in the regiment as a private.

There's more to the sewing machine story, and I'll cover some of that next week. But in the meantime, can you imagine what these men would have thought if they could see the machines we use today?

1 comment :

  1. Sew interesting! ;-)

    Thanks for the info, Candice. Looking forward to next week's installment.


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