Elias Howe followed other inventors to make the first truly effective sewing
machine. Embroidery machines were first patented in 1790, using the idea of
the double-pointed needle, which was first used by Charles Weisenthal when he
was attempting to make a sewing machine in 1755. In 1804, John Duncan improved
the embroidery machine by adding multiple needles.
Howe was born in Spencer, Mass. in 1819, the nephew of two inventive uncles.
He grew up among cotton carders in his father’s mill and later worked in a
Lowell cotton factory. As an adult he watched his girlfriend, later wife, sew to
form an idea on how to mechanize it. At this time, in 1839, he was an assistant
to capitalist and mechanic, Ardis Davis. In 1842 the first sewing machine was
patented, as designed by John J. Greenough. It used a double-ended needle (a
point and hole were on both end) and was basically ineffective.
About this time he had a dream of being ordered by a monarch to perfect the
sewing machine at once or he would be decapitated. He felt powerless and watched
the savages move forward to behead him. He could see their weapons were long
with grooved lances and eye-holes near the tip. This dream gave him the idea for
improving the Greenough machine and he abandoned the idea of copying hand
sewing. Instead, he “beheaded one end of the needle” and made two threads
catch each other around a curved needle and used a shuttle. By 1844, he needed
an exact model to show others, but he lacked fund to make it. So he partnered
with George Fisher, who provided housing, food and workspace for Howe, his wife
and three children, plus $500.00.
With the model completed, Howe demonstrated in 1845 that his machine could
take 250 stitches a minute. He would have “sewing races” with women. He
could make two men’s suits before they could. Some tailors didn’t believe
it, and many did not want to, fearing it threatened their livelihood. Instead it
was Howe’s finances and business that was threatened, as he had spent all his
money on accomplishing this and now had little left. The sewing machine was
expensive and slow to catch on with American women. He was forced to work for
the railroads as an engineer to feed his family.
He sold off some of the earlier models he had invented. An English manufacturer
of carpetbags, stays and umbrellas, bought his sewing machine, with rights, for
250 pounds and promised a 3 pound royalty for each machine sold. Records
indicate this was never fulfilled. Eventually through deaths, and his partner
Fisher, he got his shares back in 1854 and his right to collect royalties on the
machines manufactured. He finally made money on his successful machine. His
patent expired in 1867, which was also the year he died.