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Would The Real Inventor Please Stand Up

History often tells a black and white story of events, but as most people come to realize as they grow older, reality is not always as we remember.

The patent filed by Elias Howe in 1846 certified the first practical sewing machine.

The patent described a process that used thread from two different sources The top thread passed through a curved needle with an eye at the pointed end. The needle would pierce through the fabric, while another thread contained in a shuttle passed through and caught the first thread forming a locked stitch.

Until this moment, every stitch had been made by needle and thread in the hand of a real person. Suddenly, everything changed. Howes new invention could outperform the best hand sewers five times over. The new 250 stitches per minute set a whole new pace.

A story is told that Elias Howe had failed repeatedly to make his invention, until his wife stepped in and did it for him. Interesting aside, or reality? Elias Howe did file the patent himself.

We will never know the truth about exactly how it was done, but difficulties marketing the device and struggles over patent rights drained the Howe family of even greater success.

Others were watching and adapting. Isaac Singer (1811-1875) invented a mechanism that moved up and down. Allen Wilson originated a rotary hook shuttle.

Quickly, Isaac Singer led the pack. He produced the first profitable sewing machine with a needle that moved up and down. Unlike many of his competitors how used hand crank drive devices, Singer introduced a sewing machine powered by a foot driven treadle device.

Elias Howe was not alone even from the start. Another inventor, Walter Hunt had already ten years earlier produced a lockstitch machine using two thread very similar to Howes. Unfortunately, Hunt never filed a patent. Also when local workers heard of Hunts invention, they panic fearing wide spread unemployment among garment workers. Hunt had abandoned his pursuits, but ended up later being sued for patent infringement by Howe.

Howe filed suit to protect his patent rights. He engaged in one court battle and another. In 1854, he finally wins the court battles over his patent rights, but during the fight, his competitors had gained a huge advantage over him in marketing.

Elias Howe marketed his machine earning an estimated two million dollars by the end of the Civil War.

The best known name in the sewing world quickly became Singer. Even today, it is the best known brand of sewing machines. Isaac Singer produced many machine advancements and profitably marketed his machines for now over 150 years.

So, who did invent the sewing machine? Walter Hunt, Elias Howe, Isaac Singer, or perhaps it was simply and age of invention and discovery. In one sense, it does not matter to whom we give credit today. The courts gave credit to Elias Howe, but the world has given the credit to Isaac Singer by buying his sewing machine.


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