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Stitches - The History of Sewing Machines

The functional sewing machine caused a riot.

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Isaac Singer sewing machine

Isaac Singer Machine

Hand sewing is an art form that is over 20,000 years old. The first sewing needles were made of bones or animal horns and the first thread was made of animal sinew. Iron needles were invented in the 14th century. The first eyed needles appeared in the 15th century.

Birth of Mechanical Sewing

The first possible patent connected to mechanical sewing was a 1755 British patent issued to German, Charles Weisenthal. Weisenthal was issued a patent for a needle that was designed for a machine, however, the patent did not describe the rest of the machine if one existed.

Several Inventors Attempt to Improve Sewing

The English inventor and cabinet maker, Thomas Saint was issued the first patent for a complete machine for sewing in 1790. It is not known if Saint actually built a working prototype of his invention. The patent describes an awl that punched a hole in leather and passed a needle through the hole. A later reproduction of Saint's invention based on his patent drawings did not work.

In 1810, German, Balthasar Krems invented an automatic machine for sewing caps. Krems did not patent his invention and it never functioned well.

Austrian tailor, Josef Madersperger made several attempts at inventing a machine for sewing and was issued a patent in 1814. All of his attempts were considered unsuccessful.

In 1804, a French patent was granted to Thomas Stone and James Henderson for "a machine that emulated hand sewing." That same year a patent was granted to Scott John Duncan for an "embroidery machine with multiple needles." Both inventions failed and were soon forgotten by the public.

In 1818, the first American sewing machine was invented by John Adams Doge and John Knowles. Their machine failed to sew any useful amount of fabric before malfunctioning.

Barthelemy Thimonnier - First Functional Machine & a Riot

The first functional sewing machine was invented by the French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, in 1830. Thimonnier's machine used only one thread and a hooked needle that made the same chain stitch used with embroidery. The inventor was almost killed by an enraged group of French tailors who burnt down his garment factory because they feared unemployment as a result of his new invention.

Walter Hunt & Elias Howe

In 1834, Walter Hunt built America's first (somewhat) successful sewing machine. He later lost interest in patenting because he believed his invention would cause unemployment. (Hunt's machine could only sew straight steams.) Hunt never patented and in 1846, the first American patent was issued to Elias Howe for "a process that used thread from two different sources."

Elias Howe's machine had a needle with an eye at the point. The needle was pushed through the cloth and created a loop on the other side; a shuttle on a track then slipped the second thread through the loop, creating what is called the lockstitch. However, Elias Howe later encountered problems defending his patent and marketing his invention.

For the next nine years Elias Howe struggled, first to enlist interest in his machine, then to protect his patent from imitators. His lockstitch mechanism was adopted by others who were developing innovations of their own. Isaac Singer invented the up-and-down motion mechanism, and Allen Wilson developed a rotary hook shuttle.

Isaac Singer Vs Elias Howe - Patent Wars

Sewing machines did not go into mass production until the 1850's, when Isaac Singer built the first commercially successful machine. Singer built the first sewing machine where the needle moved up and down rather than the side-to-side and the needle was powered by a foot treadle. Previous machines were all hand-cranked. However, Isaac Singer's machine used the same lockstitch that Howe had patented. Elias Howe sued Isaac Singer for patent infringement and won in 1854. Walter Hunt's sewing machine also used a lockstitch with two spools of thread and an eye-pointed needle; however, the courts upheld Howe's patent since Hunt had abandoned his patent.

If 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. As a side note: In 1844, Englishmen John Fisher received a patent for a lace making machine that was identical enough to the machines made by Howe and Singer that if Fisher's patent had not been lost in the patent office, John Fisher would also have been part of the patent battle.

After successfully defending his right to a share in the profits of his invention, Elias Howe saw his annual income jump from three hundred to more than two hundred thousand dollars a year. 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 and served in the regiment as a private.

Continue > Isaac Singer Vs Elias Hunt - Patent Wars

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