For anyone who has sewn with a modern sewing machine, it's a bit like magic. By following a few simple rules (like threading the machine properly) and a pattern, you can create a brand new garment in minutes! You can create a quilt in a few hours rather than the months required by previous generations.
Like most inventions, Elias was inspired by need. His journeyman machinist career wasn't enough to lift his family out of poverty. His wife was a seamstress and spent many hours sewing for others. He watched her and thought about how he could make her life easier with a machine.
In 1845, he put that into his first sewing machine and improved it. He carried that to the Patent Office and received patent no. 4750 - the fifth patent for a sewing machine.
(Early Howe model - Source - used for educational purposes)
His machine increased sewing productivity by staggering amounts - allowing his wife to stitch things 10-20x faster than she could do by hand.
What did he do differently?
His machine made a locking stitch - upon which most future sewing machines were based.
At first, the other machines were infringing on his patent, but in 1856, his lawsuits to collect royalties on his patent had a result that was truly history making...
Elias Howe worked with three companies, Wheeler & Wilson, Grover and Baker and I.M. Singer to form a patent pool - the first in American industry. The Sewing Machine Combination and/or the Sewing Machine Trust allowed Howe to make the money he needed to survive ($5 per sewing machine sold in the USA) and also free the companies from litigation - allowing them to concentrate on sewing machines instead. Even though his patent expired with his death in 1867, he had earned at least $2 million in license fees.
One of the first people to get a manufacturing license was actually Elias's brother, Amasa Bemis Howe (A.B. Howe.) Here's a really cool video about how to use one of the old Amasa Howe machines. (Turn up/boost the volume, she's very quiet!)
- National Museum of American History
- Cambridge (MA) Historical Society
- International Sewing Machine Collectors Society
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