July 9, 2012 - Happy Birthday, Elias Howe

This is the guy who is often called “the inventor of the sewing machine.”

But he didn't precisely invent the sewing machine.

Born on this date in 1819, Howe may have seen and used others' sewing machine inventions—one was invented as early as 1790, almost 20 years before Howe was born!—but Howe made a great many improvements to others' designs. In 1846 he was awarded the first United States patent for a sewing machine (others had patented their inventions in other countries, apparently earlier than Howe).

Howe invented three things still used in most modern machines:
  • a needle with the eye at the point
  • a shuttle operating beneath the cloth to form the lock stitch
  • an automatic feed

An inventor named Walter Hunt had apparently invented a sewing machine without all of these advances about a decade before Howe's invention. But he didn't get a patent, and he didn't move to manufacture his machine, because he feared that his invention would cause unemployment for seamstresses.

When Howe patented his own sewing machine and tried to manufacture it, somehow Walter Hunt hooked up with a man named Isaac Singer. Hunt was able to make a replica of Howe's sewing machine, and Singer manufactured and sold a lot of sewing machines! (“Singer” is still one of the biggest names in sewing machines.) Since Singer was selling machines with Howe's patented inventions, Howe sued Singer and, after a looooong (6 year) trial, was awarded thousands of dollars in back royalties. Then Howe went on to negotiate getting a five-dollar royalty for each sewing machine manufactured in the U.S. and one dollar for each sold elsewhere. That earned him millions!

Also on this date:

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