The father of Elias Howe, Jr., the inventor and patentee of the American sewing-machine (born in Spencer, Mass., in 1819; died in Brooklyn, L. I., October 3, 1867), was a farmer and miller, and, as was the custom at that time in the country towns of New England, carried on in his family some of those minor branches of industry suited to the capacity of children, with which New England abounds. In his case the household industry in which most of his eight children were employed was the setting of card-teeth for carding cotton. When old enough, Elias assisted his father on the mill and farm, and it was when employed in the former, it is said, that he acquired that direction of taste and talent which developed itself so fruitfully both for himself and for his country. In 1835 he went to Lowell, and was employed there as a learner in a manufactory of cotton machinery, where he remained until the financial panic of 1837, when, like others, the stopping of the mills left him unemployed. He next found work at Cambridge, but remained there but a few months, having in the meantime succeeded in obtaining employment in the shop of Ari Davis, a Boston machinist.
Here the feasibility of constructing a sewing-machine was talked of in his presence, and to this circumstance, no doubt, he is indebted to priority as the inventor. He nursed his idea, it appears, for several years, unable to develop it with steel and iron. Three years after his first introduction to the workshop of Davis, we find him, when in the receipt of but $9 a week, and with but a delicate constitution, adding to his cares by getting married. His health was not bettered by his new life, and its burdens bore heavily upon him. It was at this time that he gave heart and soul to perfect the invention which has since made him famous and a millionaire. But despite the labors of many weary months and the wakeful nights when he needed rest so much after his ordinary day's work, it was not until late in 1844 that he at last arose from his work, satisfied that he had embodied his idea. But when ready to put his invention before the world, he was without the means even to purchase the material necessary to the construction of a perfect model.
It was at this time that he met an old school-fellow, George Fisher, a wood and coal merchant, at Cambridge, who, believing that there was a fortune in the discovery, formed a partnership with Howe, taking him and his family to board with him, that Elias might use the garret they had occupied, as a workshop, and advancing the sum of $500 wherewith to provide the necessary tools and material for the work. Here Howe labored day and night, completing his first machine in May, 1845. It might be thought that at this point, if the laborer did not rest, at least his fitting reward began, but it was not so. Strange as it may seem, he met opposition on every side from those most interested in the labor-saving machine. He exhibited it in Boston, where he convinced the tailors of its usefulness, and won their commendation, qualified by the expression of their opinion which accompanied it, that it would ruin the trade. Their praise of the machine was all the support its inventor received. Not one of them would invest a dollar in it.
Again in despair, with all his money gone, his friend Fisher came once more to his rescue, and between them the machine was patented. This was the extent of his friend's support; the failure of further efforts to introduce the invention to public notice and patronage broke down the confidence of Fisher, and Howe moved back to his father's house in Cambridge, where he had resided prior to his acquaintance with Fisher, his father having removed there, to carry on the manufacture of palm-leaf strips for hat-making. For a brief time he obtained employment on a railroad as engineer, and drove a locomotive until he broke down completely in health. Still hopeful, however, he concluded to seek the patronage in England denied him at home, and, assisted by his father, his brother Amasa left with the machine in October, 1846. Amasa found there, in William Thomas, of Cheapside, London, the first financial success, and Mr. Thomas made an excellent bargain, receiving for £250 sterling the machine which the brother had brought with him, and the right to use as many as he needed in his own business of corset, umbrella, and valise making. He offered £3 per week if Elias would come to him and adapt the machine to corset making. With this offer Amasa returned, and as the £250 only afforded a temporary relief, Elias concluded to go to England and accept the offer of Mr. Thomas, which he did, accompanied by Amasa. Here he worked eight months, but Thomas was exacting and Elias left him at the expiration of that time. In the meantime, his sick wife and three children had joined him.
The story of his life, for several months after his dismissal from the workshop of Thomas, is most painful in its details, ending in absolute penury and his return home, after an absence of two years, with a half-crown in his pocket, and his model and patent papers pawned to furnish the means for his return. He landed at New York, where he learned that his wife, who had preceded him, was dying of consumption at Cambridge. He had not money enough to enable him to reach her. In a few days, however, he succeeded, reaching her bedside just before her death. Fate had not yet done her worst. The ship in which he had embarked the few household goods he had gathered together in England was lost at sea. This it would appear was fortune's last blow. He soon found himself in good employment, and better still, in a short time he realized that his machine had become famous during his absence. Ingenious mechanics, regardless of his patents, had constructed, facsimiles. They were being exhibited about the country as wonders, and in some places had been actually introduced in important manufactures.
Howe now found friends, and, after some delay, the necessary funds to establish his rights. In 1850 he was superintending in New York City the construction of machines to order. With the litigation which accompanies the first steps of the inventor on the road to fortune, readers are familiar. It is known that so protracted were these law proceedings that it was not until 1854, four years after his return from England, that Mr. Howe established his prior claim to the invention. Then, sole proprietor of his patent, his years of increasing revenue began, which grew from $300, it is stated, to $200,000. On the 10th of September, 1867, his patent expired, at which time it was calculated he had realized about $2,000,000. With this princely fortune he enjoyed fame enough to satisfy him, had he worked for that alone, the last acknowledgment of his genius being the gold medal of the Paris Exposition, and the Cross of the Legion of Honor in addition, as a compliment to him as a manufacturer and inventor. For several years past, he had been a practical manufacturer of sewing-machines, and the machine bearing his name has now an excellent reputation, especially for leather work. During the Civil War Mr. Howe manifested a high degree of patriotism. When the country was in need of soldiers he contributed money largely, and at a public meeting in Bridgeport he enlisted as a private soldier in the Seventeenth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers. He went to the field and performed his duties as an enlisted man, till his health failed. More than this, when the Government was prest for funds to pay its soldiers, he advanced the money necessary to pay the regiment of which he was a member.
1 From an article in "Appleton's Annual Cyclopedia" for 1867. By permission of D. Appleton & Co.