Who Invented Sewing Machines?
In 1867 Elias Howe's patent was up for renewal. In support of his application an extremely sycophantic article was published by James Parton in the "Atlantic Monthly" (Vol. XIX, No. 115, pp527 - 544). I have noticed that this piece is often quoted and referred to in books about sewing machine collecting, e.g. Carter Bays "The Encyclopedia of Early American Sewing Machines" p.6, James Slaten "Antique American Sewing Machines" p.15 etc.
These quotes are characterised by a story of a conversation which Howe is supposed to have overheard as a young man in Boston in 1839 in a shop belonging to one Ari Davis, and which involved a challenge to invent a practical sewing machine. This conversation supposedly stimulated Howe to make the attempt.
Interestingly there is no reference to this incident in the pamphlet by N. Salmon supporting Howe which was published in the 1860's and which was reprinted in its entirety in the ISMACS News beginning in issue No. 61 (October 1998).
The origin of this story then seems to have been Parton's article in the Atlantic Monthly. The article reprinted here, "Who Invented Sewing Machines?" was published three months later in August 1867, and is a riposte to Parton's article and to Howe's entitlement to a further seven-year renewal of his patent.
I have not seen this article referred to anywhere and it gives a fascinating account of the issues involved from the perspective of some of those opposing Howe.
From: THE GALAXY (August 1867) Vol. 4, Issue 4, pp471 – 481
WHO INVENTED SEWING MACHINES?
In the “Atlantic Monthly” for May  there appeared a lively article, by a skilful and popular author [James Parton], called “History of the Sewing Machine”. The substance of that sketch fell far short of its title; for it turned out mainly to be a glorification of Elias Howe, Jr., a single one of many patentees. Its tone was that of an article written expressly to promote the pecuniary interests of Mr Howe, and in opposition to the interests of the public. It is generally understood among the patentees and manufacturers of sewing machines that Mr Howe, after having enjoyed the monopoly given him by his patent of September, 1846, for the original term of fourteen years, and having had an extension of it for seven years longer, and having received from the public for the use of his invention about two millions of dollars, now actually designs to apply to Congress for a further extension of his patent. The question, then, is simply this: Shall Mr. Howe, who has already been overpaid for his inventive labor, even had they the merit he claims for them, and who has enjoyed all the monopoly the law ever contemplates, now be favored by special act of Congress with a gratuity of two million dollars more? To state this proposition would seem to be enough to condemn it.
To furnish the slightest basis for so rapacious a claim, it would be first of all necessary for Mr. Howe to magnify his own inventions at the expense of others. Foremost among inventors of sewing-machines stands Walter Hunt. The gross injustice done to this great name in the magazine just referred to demands reparation. It is not the purpose of the present article to discriminate between the existing sewing-machines. Its object is rather to vindicate the memory of a man whose invention overtops them all, in the grand merit of originality, and whose successful labors so far antedated all others that there need be no dispute about his laurels. That Mr. Howe, especially, never can deprive him of his hard-earned fame, we shall easily be able to prove. We assert and can show:
First. Elias Howe was not the first patentee of a sewing-machine. No less than six different patents for sewing-machines were secured in France, England and the United States before the date of Howe’s patent, and before the date of his alleged invention. This is matter of historical record, and there can be no mistake about it.
Second. Howe was not the original inventor of the valuable devices contained in the machine patented by him. The specification of claim in his patent contains presumptive evidence that he was informed and knew that another person had preceded him as the inventor of the combination of needle and shuttle to form the interlocked stitch with two threads.
Third. Walter Hunt, of the City of New York, was the original and first inventor of the sewing-machine in which an eye-pointed needle and a shuttle were successfully employed to make the interlocked stitch.
The records of the United States Patent Office, since the month of May, 1854, have contained the evidence – accessible to all the world – that Walter Hunt made the invention in question, and completed, and exhibited, and sold a sewing-machine ten years before Howe pretends that he constructed his first machine.
It was between the years 1832 and 1834 that Walter Hunt, in his own workshop in Amos Street, in the City of New York, invented, built and put in full and effective operation a machine for sewing, stitching and seaming cloth. This first machine was made principally by the inventor’s own hands, and, on its successful completion, one or more others were built, Walter Hunt’s brother, Adoniram, assisting him. It was the pioneer sewing-machine of America, and the first really successful one of the world. There had already been a French invention, a tambour machine for ornamenting gloves, of very little general utility. These machines of Walter Hunt all contained the invention of the curved needle with eye near the point, the shuttle and their combination, and they originated the famous interlocked stitch with two threads. Many samples of cloth were perfectly sewn by these machines, and many of the friends and neighbors of the inventor came to see them work. At length one G. A. Arrowsmith was so well satisfied with the working of the machines, that he bought them, in 1834, and therewith the rights to the letters patent. But no sooner had Arrowsmith got this right (which the thousand other schemes of Walter Hunt’s teeming brain induced him to part with on easy terms), than he became impressed with both the vastness of the undertaking and with the prejudice which any scheme apparently tending to impoverish poor seamstresses would awaken. At the same time he became involved in pecuniary disaster from speculations and from unlucky business projects, and for years did nothing with the machine. Meanwhile, Hunt was turning out other new inventions, and selling them for a trifle to other men.
Fortunately for his fame, many people had seen his machines work, and had seen them sew a good, strong and handsome stitch, and form seams better than hand-sewing. Of these, no less than six directly testified to this fact in a suit afterward brought (hereafter alluded to), and established the fact beyond question that Walter Hunt invented the first sewing-machine, and that it contained the curved, eye-pointed needle at the end of a vibrating arm with a shuttle. The case itself was decided upon another point. These affidavits are still in existence. But this was not all. Fifteen years after he had sold his machines to Arrowsmith, who lost a fortune and a name in not devoting himself to their reproduction, Walter Hunt from memory gave a sworn written description of his first machine in every part, and, to clinch the matter, afterward constructed a machine from that description, which was the counterpart of the machine of 1834, and worked perfectly. Finally, one of the original machines sold to Arrowsmith in 1834 was preserved, though in a dilapidated condition, and by him was sold to Singer & Co., who have it in safe keeping yet. Walter Hunt then undertook to make a new sewing-machine, which should be an operative instrument, and should contain all the parts which were preserved of the old machine, with such others as were necessary to present the machine in the same shape that the original one possessed. Mr. Hunt did this successfully, and the restored machine, still operative and ready to sew good, strong seams, is in the possession of the Singer Manufacturing Company.
Early in the year 1853, Singer & Co. accidentally discovered an old letter written in 1836 by A. F. Hunt, a brother of Walter Hunt, which spoke of the sewing-machine, and alluded to other persons who had seen it in operation. The sewing-machine in question having been made for Arrowsmith in 1834, was taken by him and A. F. Hunt to Baltimore, Md., in 1835, and was there exhibited in operation. In a short time, Singer & Co., following out the clew thus obtained, discovered no less than eight new witnesses, all testifying positively that they saw the Hunt machine in 1834 or 1835, and that it was a working machine, which sewed good seams and made the interlocked stitch with needle and shuttle. One of these witnesses worked as a machinist upon some parts of the machine – the very same machine of which the broken parts are still in existence. He saw it put together, and saw it sew, and saw it afterward exhibited by Hunt and Arrowsmith to other persons. This witness, though a working machinist in 1834, had become a substantial cotton manufacturer when he was examined in 1854. Another of these new witnesses was Solomon Andrews, Esq., a distinguished inventor and mechanician. He examined the machine, and saw it operated by A. F. Hunt in Baltimore. He fully understood its method of operation. Ten years later, in 1845, Mr. Andrews called at the office of Thomas P. Jones, Esq., who had been at one time Commissioner of Patents, but was then practising as an agent for procuring patents for inventions. There Mr. Andrews saw the Howe machine, for which Mr. Jones was just preparing the specification and drawings to obtain a patent. Mr. Andrews thereupon stated to Mr. Jones that Hunt was the original inventor of that kind of sewing-machine, and explained to him what he had seen in Baltimore in 1835. This explanation to the patent agent shows why Howe made his specification of claim in the peculiar way he did. He did not then venture to claim as his the eye-pointed needle or the shuttle, or even a combination of the two in a sewing-machine; but he simply claimed the forming of a seam by means of a curved needle or a shuttle, “under a combination and arrangement of parts, substantially the same with that described”. This language indicates that the patent agent knew, and presumptively Mr. Howe knew, that he had no right to claim the needle and shuttle.
Such is the simple story, supported beyond cavil by hundreds of pages of sworn testimony, of the origins of sewing-machines. It shows that Walter Hunt invented the great central feature of all such machines – the combination of the shuttle with the needle, having the eye near the point. All other things, contrived by Howe and others later, are trivial and temporary, and liable to be superseded.
Some months prior to May, 1854, Hunt applied for a patent for his original invention, and the United States Patent Office declared an interference between such application and the patent then held by Howe. Numerous witnesses were examined on behalf of Howe and Hunt upon the question of priority of invention, and argument was heard by the counsel of the respective parties. Then the Hon. Charles Mason, Commissioner of Patents, and well known to be a very able lawyer, decided the case and filed a written opinion, from which the following extracts are taken:
“In 1846 Howe obtained a patent upon a sewing-machine, upon which there have since been many improvements by others. Hunt now claims priority to all these, upon the ground that he invented the sewing-machine substantially as described in his specification, previous to the invention of Howe. He proves that, in 1834 or 1835, he contrived a machine by which he actually effected his purpose of sewing cloth with considerable success. Upon a careful consideration of the testimony, I am disposed to think that he had then carried his invention to the point of patentability ……………. The very idea of carrying on this delicate and difficult operation by machinery was a bold one. The contrivance of a machine that should carry out the idea was patentable, although that machine was so imperfect as not to supersede the ordinary mode of sewing. I understand from the evidence that Hunt actually made a working machine, thus even going further than was absolutely necessary to entitle him to a patent, had he then applied for it ………………. The papers in the case show that Howe obtained a patent for substantially this same invention, in 1846. The presumption is that since that time the invention has been in public use or on sale. Now Hunt, by the sale to Arrowsmith, had given his consent that any person, or all the world, might use the invention. Therefore it was in public use and on sale with the consent of the inventor and present applicant.”
The Commissioner of Patents then decided that Hunt was not entitled to a patent, for the reason that, in 1834, he had sold his invention to George A. Arrowsmith, and had allowed more than two years to elapse after such sale before applying for a patent, wherefore he was debarred by the act of 1839 from obtaining a patent. It is evident from this opinion that if Judge Mason had possessed sufficient power under the law, he would not only have refused the patent to Hunt, but would have declared Howe’s patent, as to its material claims, void, for want of originality. If Mr. Howe presents his petition to Congress for a special gratuity, any member of that body who wishes to arrive at the truth and to do justice to the country and his constituents, has only to go to the Patent Office and read the testimony in this interference between Hunt and Howe, and he will be satisfied of the correctness of Judge Mason’s views, and will perceive not only that Howe should have no more compensation from the public, but another person ought to have received the golden shower which has descended upon him.
The reader who has followed us thus far, may desire to learn something more of the character and career of the inventor of sewing-machines. He will find that as Walter Hunt was intellectually able to conceive the sewing-machine, mechanically he was able to build it, and morally he was incapable of claiming what was not his due. Gifted with most marvellous originality of mind, he improved his natural powers by very extensive reading and study in many branches of science, and by profound and incessant thought. His intellect was remarkably suggestive, insomuch that whoever talked with him was sure to bring away some new and useful idea. Scores of inventions of other men owe their origin to his suggestion. Up to 1853, he had himself obtained patents for more than twenty of his own inventions. His deposition of that year tells us that being then fifty-seven years old, and “by profession a machinist and inventor”, he had been “mostly engaged in inventing and constructing novel machinery of various kinds for upwards of twenty-five years last past”.
The records of the Patent Office from 1830 to the date of his death, give evidence of Walter Hunt’s brilliant and exhaustless inventive powers, his practical skill, his incessant labor, his many and useful contrivances which give him enduring claim to the gratitude of his countrymen. To these well-known inventions we need not refer; but he invented more things which he did not secure by letters patent than those which were patented. He invented, for example, the “Globe Stove”; he invented the machinery used for combining steel rivets with leather in the soles of boots and shoes; he invented a composition whereby all the fragments and choppings of marble and stone-yards could be converted into building materials of any desired regular form, as indestructible as granite; he invented a composition and machinery for making paper boxes of all sizes and descriptions, and of such strength that, as he used to say, “a pill box made in that way would bear his weight without being crushed” – and there is a fortune in that idea yet; he invented the first paper collars of the kind so generally used now, and obtained one or more patents therefore. The writer believes, indeed, that all the ideas on paper collars originated with Hunt, though Rollin, one of his workmen, also took out a patent for them. It was Walter Hunt who both invented and made the apparatus with which Sands, the famous gymnast, walked on the ceiling. This contrivance exhibited a philosophical principle, the head of the gymnast being downward, and his feet being made to adhere at each step to a perfectly smooth and oiled plank, by force of atmospheric pressure alone. The mechanism by which the feet could be successively disengaged from the platform or ceiling to perform the operation of walking, was very ingenious, and required most dextrous accuracy in the fabrication.
Walter Hunt’s knowledge of mechanical and scientific books was very extensive, as we have said, and his conversation remarkably original and instructive. His researches went beyond mechanics. He was well versed in medicine, and concocted and for many years sold a popular remedy for cholera complaints. The writer also remembers Mr. Hunt’s assuring him he had alleviated or cured rheumatism in his own case by mechanical means, and that he had thought of obtaining a patent for the instrument he had framed for that purpose. He was the inventor, also, of improvements in shawl-pins; in the corking of bottles; in making cheap heels for boots and shoes; and in breech-loading firearms. These inventions and devices – which are selected out of many merely for illustration – will show the astonishing fertility and versatility of his brain, as their practical success from the start testifies to his practical constructive skill. How so brilliant a genius and so adroit and laborious a mechanic died poor, leaving others to get the benefit of his work, we must now explain. Like many another mechanical genius, Walter Hunt, in all that related to pecuniary affairs, was a mere child. He was astonishingly improvident. He made contracts carelessly. He was little versed in business arts. He was always in want of money, being reckless in its expenditure, and his inventions were usually sold before they were patented, or mortgaged during construction. Yet he was a man of strong moral convictions, a conscientious man, who could not be induced to testify wrongly or to suppress his testimony. He was a man of strong opinions, too, and of much logical power. Brought up a Hicksite Quaker, and holding the religious opinions of that sect, he became fond of theological discussion, to which his profound acquaintance with the Bible and his extensive reading in speculative theology adapted him. On all sides of his nature, his moral as well as his intellectual, Walter Hunt exhibits himself to us as one capable of inventing the sewing-machine, and incapable of claiming what did not belong to him.
After Hunt’s invention, a series of others were projected in America and Europe; all proved successful which employed his combination of needle and shuttle. In 1842 Greenough patented a machine; in 1843 Corliss patented one; in 1846 Elias Howe, Jr., patented one – the third patent in America, and the seventh in the world. Examining his patent, we find it to consist of five claims. Of these, four are not only unnecessary, but are hurtful to the working of a good machine, and are, therefore, not used. The fifth and remaining one is the invention of Walter Hunt, made ten years before.
Mr. Howe says he built his first sewing-machine in 1845. He constructed another in 1846, upon which he obtained a patent in September of that year. He built a third machine about the same time, which his brother, A. B. Howe, took to London, where, according to agreement, Elias Howe endeavored to adapt the machine to do the work of the purchaser, Mr. Thomas.
Amasa B. Howe says and prints and publishes that his brother, Elias, “remained in the employ of Mr.Thomas some three years, having unlimited supplies of material and means for the development of the invention. But, failing to produce any practical results, or in adding anything of value to his original model, he abandoned the whole thing and returned home”. The truth was that Howe, through his brother, had sold an imperfect and impracticable machine, with a contract that Howe should come to London and adapt the machine to practical work. Mr. Howe appears to have worked a long time for Mr. Thomas, under wages, without arriving at any good result. Mr. Thomas became tired of the fruitless expense, and discharged Howe, as was natural under such circumstances. And Amasa finally sums up his brother Elias’ merits as a sewing-machine maker thus: “His career as a builder of sewing-machines ended where it began, with simply constructing the three impracticable models above referred to”.
That Elias Howe did not know how to build a sewing-machine of practical utility, even as late as 1851, is proved by this circumstance: On the 16th of February, 1851, Howe made a contract with G. S. Jackson, W. E. Whiting, and D. C. Morey, of Boston, to construct, according to his patent, as perfect and useful a machine as he was capable of making. Morey and Jackson have testified upon oath that Howe, after working about six weeks, produced a sewing-machine which was a failure and incapable of being used. Howe admitted its defects, but thought he could do better upon another trial. He did try again, but the second machine was no better than the first. A master mechanic, in whose shop Howe attempted to build this machine, also testified to its glaring defects, and to the mechanical incapacity of Mr. Howe.
The circumstance that Mr. Howe, after years of diligent labor, was unable to improve upon his first model, leads to a suspicion that he had heard of the machine of Walter Hunt, and its peculiar combination, before he ever did anything toward contriving one of his own. Nor was his personal lack of constructive skill alone at fault. Within a period of five years succeeding the date of Howe’s patent, several persons who had acquired rights or received licenses under that patent, tried to make sewing-machines after Howe’s model, for the purposes of sale and use. They were all failures, and served merely to deepen the impression in the public mind that practical sewing by machinery was an impossibility. The machine of Blodgett & Lerow, patented in 1849, was superior to any that had been produced before it, and some of them were sold, to be used in the manufacture of clothing. They contained, however, the baster-plate of the Howe machine in a modified and improved form, which, with some other imperfect devices, rendered them useless to the public, and they were speedily laid aside. In 1849, also, the single-thread, chain-stitch machine of Morey & Johnson was produced, containing improvements of some merit, and materially advancing the art. John Bachelder about the same time obtained patents on certain improvements of his own, which approached still nearer to a practical sewing-machine.
In 1849, Allen B. Wilson invented and constructed a sewing-machine, which was patented, containing mechanical devices of great merit, and which time has proved to have possessed eminent utility. But Mr. Wilson’s sewing-machine, as originally arranged and constructed, notwithstanding the great fame as an inventor since universally accorded to him, was a practical failure. A large number of sewing-machines were made according to that patent, and sold, but very soon dropped out of use. The celebrated and admirable Wheeler & Wilson machine had not then been invented. The inventors of the Grover & Baker machine, which has since had such a successful career, were still at work endeavoring to perfect their invention, and had not then brought the machine to such a state of completeness as to make it salable for practical purposes.
William H. Johnson, too, in 1848, invented a device, which may be deemed the germ of the now celebrated four-motion-feed in sewing-machines. Indeed, several kinds of sewing-machines are now being made, in which Johnson’s feeding device, known as the “needle-feed”, is employed.
As late as the Autumn of 1850, the world had not obtained a good practical sewing-machine. Toward the latter part of September, 1850, Mr. Isaac M. Singer turned his attention to improving Howe’s sewing-machine. By contract he agreed to invent the improved machine, and to have it built at the cost of forty dollars. It was completed within the price limited, and in less than twelve days. Letters patent were immediately applied for, and the manufacture of these machines has continued uninterruptedly, and in constantly increasing numbers, from that day to this.
Thus, in June, 1851, when Mr. Howe, as appears from the testimony of his coadjutors, Jackson and Morey, was making fruitless attempts to construct a sewing-machine according to his patent, which should have marketable utility, the Singer machine had been already introduced into profitable use in Boston, New York and elsewhere, and its success established.
In the introduction of the sewing-machine to general use, the most serious obstacle in the way was felt to be Elias Howe, Jr., and his patent of 1846. As late as 1853 he insisted that he ought to be paid a fee of $25 on every sewing-machine manufactured. The Wheeler & Wilson company, and some others, agreed to pay Mr. Howe $25 patent fee on each machine, a burden from which afterward they managed to get relieved in great part, or they never could have succeeded as they have done. From the beginning, Singer & Co. denied that Howe’s patent was valid, except in so far as it claimed a combination and arrangement of certain devices of his own, which no one found it necessary to use. These devices Howe had combined in his machine with the valuable contrivances of eye-pointed needle and shuttle, with two threads, invented by Walter Hunt, which all inventors alike had the right to employ.
Now, then, we come to the secret of Mr. Howe’s success. He has litigated himself into fortune and fame. This undertaking gave him ample scope for the energy, perseverance and business tact he so remarkably possesses. In 1852, at Boston, the famous cause, lasting several weeks, of Howe against Bradford, was tried. It was the only occasion on which Howe’s patent has been submitted to the ordeal of a jury trial. The defence set up the invention of Walter Hunt, of New York, in 1834 or 1835, against the invention of Elias Howe, Jr., of Boston, in 1845. The case, presented to a Boston Jury, seemed to be that of a New York interest against a Boston interest; and Howe had secured Rufus Choate – the equivalent to a verdict in his favor. Choate was then at the meridian of a career which procured him the title of the “monarch of the twelve”. The defence proved by six witnesses that Walter Hunt invented, perfected and sold two needle and shuttle sewing-machines in the years 1834 and 1835, containing all the essential devices in Howe’s machine of 1846. No material testimony could be found to contradict those six witnesses. But the plaintiff showed that the defendant’s machine (Blodgett & Lerow’s) had copied some minor devices from Howe’s machine which were not in Hunt’s. The consequence was that the jury were able to find a verdict for the plaintiff.
This trial did not deter Singer & Co. from proceeding with the sale of their machines. In 1853, they published a statement of the controversy up to that time, and the depositions copied into that pamphlet, which have never been contradicted, are as pertinent now as then. In 1853, Howe commenced two suits in Massachusetts to restrain two firms from selling the Singer machines. Judge Spragne refused an injunction, but consented to make an order that the defendants should keep an account of profits, and give security to pay damages, should any be awarded at the final hearing of the cause. The defendants, being intimidated at the idea of keeping an account, determined to settle with Mr. Howe, against the protest of Singer & Co.
After this success, Mr. Howe ventured out of Massachusetts, and brought several suits in equity in New Jersey, and one in New York, against Singer & Co., in 1854. None of these suits were ever prosecuted to a hearing, but negotiations were easily concluded for a settlement. Howe’s patent had thus far only been passed upon by Judge Sprague, and he had a dislike to bringing it before a jury in New York. He knew also of the newly-discovered evidence in regard to the invention of Walter Hunt. Besides, the decision of the Commissioner of Patents had just been pronounced affirming the completion and perfecting of the Hunt machine in 1835, and that was very ominous.
On the other hand, Singer & Co. felt compelled to yield to the competition in trade. The new aspirants for public favor found them engaged in an exhausting legal controversy with Howe. They therefore took licenses under Howe’s patent upon such terms as Howe saw fit to impose. If Howe could ruin the business of Singer, they would be great gainers by it. If Singer could demolish Howe’s patent, they would be relieved from further license fees to Howe, and would gain equally with Singer & Co. And while the controversy was going on, they could advertise that their machines might be used without infringement of patents, while Singer’s were subject to Howe.
Governed by those considerations, and believing they had fought the public battle long enough, Singer & Co., in the Summer of 1854, gave up the contest, much to the chagrin of the competitors and subsequent friends, and took a license under Howe’s patent. Singer & Co. did not, in consequence of such license, change their opinions as to the legitimate force of Mr. Howe’s patent. They always believed it to be a valid patent only for some unimportant device, and that the needle and shuttle combination belonged to Walter Hunt. But, by the terms of the license, they agreed not to contest the validity of the Howe patent, or aid or encourage others to do so, and they honestly kept their agreement.
Thus Mr. Howe triumphed, not through force of his patent, but by the exigencies of trade.
In the year 1860, when the first term of Mr. Howe’s patent was about to expire, he presented his petition to have it extended seven years further. He presented, as required by law, a sworn statement of his profits from the patent. He had then received a little less than half a million of dollars. Then he meekly preferred his request in the following language:
“Notwithstanding, therefore, the amount of profit which I have already realised, and for which I am grateful to my country, I believe it to be just and proper, in view of my early trials and hardships, and of the public value of my invention, now in general and permanent use, for the daily benefit of the whole community, that my patent should be extended as I have desired”.
Now, after the lapse of seven years more, and after Mr. Howe’s modest profits from his patent have swelled from less than half a million to two millions of dollars, it would seem that he ought to be satisfied.
If Congress desires to bestow a gratuity for sewing-machines, let them give it to the heirs of Walter Hunt. The proofs are ample and conclusive that he was the first inventor of the sewing mechanism which is now so popular, and from which, as modified and improved by many other inventors, the country and the world is now receiving such measureless advantages.