July 29 – Happy Birthday, Walter Hunt

Posted on July 29, 2015

Some people achieve fame and fortune when they invent something really useful or popular.

But Walter Hunt (born in New York on this date in 1796) invented a whole lot of somethings and didn't earn as much fame and fortune as, perhaps, he ought to have.

For example, do you know who invented the sewing machine? If your answer is Elias Howe (as mine was), you might be interested to know that Hunt invented a lockstitch sewing machine with a second thread (bobbin) and an eye-pointed needle more than a decade before Howe. However, Hunt feared that he would put seamstresses out of work, so he didn't patent his sewing machine. Foolish, right? Because of course someone else just re-invented it!

Some other Hunt inventions include a repeating rifle, flax spinner, knife sharpener, streetcar bell, hard-coal-burning stove, street sweeping machine, velocipede (early bicycle), and ice plough. Oh! And a fountain pen, nail-making machine, swivel-cap stopper, inkstand... and the biggie: the safety pin!

Hunt was a prolific inventor, but he didn't always realize the importance of his inventions. The invention of the safety pen is a good case in point:

Hunt owed some guy fifteen dollars. So he sat down to invent something useful, and a couple of hours later he came up with an idea for a safety pin. He patented his idea, but he didn't realize how big this invention would be, and he sold his patent and all the rights to his invention for just $400.

Nowadays, just two companies in the U.S. make safety pins, with each factory putting out over 3 million safety pins a day! The company that paid Hunt $400 for the rights to the safety pin made millions upon millions of dollars in profit from his invention!

For more about safety pins, check out this earlier post.

By the way...

When Howe patented a similar sewing machine to Hunt's earlier invention, Hunt's family prompted him to challenge Howe's claim. He did so, but the patent office accepted Howe as the first to submit a patent application for the invention.
However, Hunt was able to receive a patent for an improvement on the sewing machine – a machine that had a fabric feed that would help move fabric through the machine at an even rate and therefore minimize jams.

In 1858 Isaac Singer agreed to pay Hunt $50,000 for his original design – but Hunt died before this payment was made. I assume (and hope!) that Hunt's family received the money.

Also on this date:

(another post here)

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