Elias Howe and the Invention of the Sewing Machine

Elias Howe Sewing Machine 1846

Elias Howe Sewing Machine 1846

On October 3, 1867, American inventor Elias Howe Jr. passed away. Howe is best known for his invention of a a sewing machine using a lockstitch design.

Elias Howe Jr. was apprentice in a textile factory and after mill closings due to the Panic of 1837, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, Howe started working with carding machinery, apprenticing along with his cousin Nathaniel P. Banks. In 1838, Howe apprenticed in the shop of Ari Davis who was specialized in the manufacture and repair of chronometers and other precision instruments. It is believed that Howe’s attention was drawn to the development of the sewing machine.

Elias Howe (1819-1867)

Elias Howe (1819-1867)

Before Howe, several others had the idea of a sewing machine. Still, Howe originated significant refinements to the previous design concepts of his predecessors, and in 1846, he was awarded the first United States patent for a sewing machine using a lockstitch design. His devide contained the essential features common in most modern machines: A needle with the eye at the point, a shuttle operating beneath the cloth to form the lockstitch, and an automatic feed.

Elias Howe had problems securing his patent and issues finding investors in the United States to finance production of his invention. His brother Amasa Bemis Howe then traveled to England to search for investors and was able to sell his first machine in a London factory for corsetsumbrellas and valises.

At that time, further businesses started to manufacture sewing machines and Elias Howe was forced to defend his patent in a court case that lasted from 1849 to 1854 because he found that Isaac Singer [5] with cooperation from Walter Hunt had perfected a facsimile of his machine and was selling it with the same lockstitch that Howe had invented and patented. He won the dispute and earned considerable royalties from Singer and others for sales of his invention.

In 1851, Howe patented an automatic, uninterrupted clothing fastener, a forerunner of the modern zipper. Howe later joined the US Army as a soldier. When he died on 3 October 1867 in Brooklyn at the age of 48, he left behind a very large fortune. In 1870, 75,156 machines were built according to Howe’s system. It is believed that Howe contributed much of the money he arned to providing equipment for the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army during the Civil War.

Between 1865/67, Elias established The Howe Machine Co. in Bridgeport, Connecticut that was operated by Elias’s sons-in-law, the Stockwell Brothers until about 1886. Howe died at age 48, on October 3, 1867, of gout and a massive blood clot. 

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