The Tragedy of Thimonier—The Struggles of Elias Howe—Isaac Singer makes a Great Fortune.

THE North American Indians were so much annoyed when the first railway was driven through their Western hunting grounds that, as the first train came along, they attempted to stop it by holding a rope across the rails. The train went on, and the unfortunate Indians were dragged under its wheels and killed.

The path of the inventor is beset with difficulties. He designs a machine by which one man can do the work of ten, twenty, or even a hundred. At once he meets the most strenuous opposition from workers whom his machine threatens to displace, people who cannot see that such an invention is bound, in the long run, to make life easier for all. The model may be destroyed, the inventor may be injured, even killed, yet not even the fiercest opposition has been able to retard for long the arrival of any really useful invention.

Perhaps there never was an invention which saved more human toil than did the sewing machine, for less than a hundred years ago every garment was slowly stitched together by hand. The wages paid to seamstresses were cruelly low, and thousands of sewing women and men lived in a state little, if any, better than slavery. To these people the sewing machine was actually the means of deliverance from misery; yet seldom, if ever, has any invention been met by more bitter opposition.

It seems curious that it was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that a machine for sewing was devised. The first attempt to produce such a machine was made by a German tailor named Weisenthal in 1755, who
Saint's Machine
Saint's Machine
used a double-pointed needle, eyed in the middle. Then half a century passed before John Duncan, a Glasgow machinist, went a step farther and made an embroidering machine, the drawings of which show that he had some idea of the loop stitch.

But neither of these was a real sewing machine. The first was that invented by Thomas Saint, a London cabinetmaker, who in 1790 patented a machine for sewing leather. This was actually on the chain-stitch principle, but the specifications were poorly made out, and Saint does not appear to have manufactured any of his machines. The description was buried, forgotten, in the Patent Office until nearly eighty years later some one interested in sewing machines discovered it. Saint’s machine had the overhanging arm of the modern machine, the perpendicular action, the eye-pointed needle, and a feed equal to that of most modern machines. Never was there a more singular case of really great invention coming to nothing simply because its inventor had not the skill or business ability to put it forward.

Saint’s machine died, you may say, before it was born, and forty years passed before we hear of any other similar invention. In 1830 a Frenchman named Thimonier devised a workable sewing machine specially intended for stitching gloves, and with this he began to work in Paris. Finding it answer, he adapted his machine for making army clothing. The news spread among the workmen that one machine could do the work of ten men or women, and a mob of poor, ignorant wretches broke into Thimonier’s workshop and smashed his machine; he himself had to run for his life.

Thimonier stuck to his guns,
Thimonier's Machine
Thimonier's Machine
however, and four years later returned to Paris with a new and greatly improved machine. Again the mob gathered, and again the unfortunate man was forced to fly. He then made a tour through French towns, showing his machine wherever he went, and, by making a small charge, gained some sort of living. At last he met a man with money, who offered to become his partner, and the two set up a factory for the manufacture of the machines. But in 1848 revolution broke out in France, the factory came to grief, and the unlucky inventor was left to starve. He died in 1859, it is said, of a broken heart.

Meantime American inventors were busy. Walter Hunt, a citizen of New York, built and sold a few sewing machines of his own design, made on the lock-stitch principle and with the eye-pointed needle, between 1832 and 1834, but very little is known of the man or his invention. To Elias Howe must be given the credit for the invention of the first practical sewing machine, and for making a success of it.

Elias Howe was born in 1819, the son of a miller in the small town of Spencer in Massachusetts. The first spinning factories were then being built in New England, and poor little Elias, at the early age of six, was sent to work in one of these. His only schooling was for a few weeks each summer. Elias had his ambition, and when sixteen went to the big town of Lowell and got work in a cotton factory. In 1837 this closed down, and Elias was glad to get a job in a machine shop. He was still very young when he married and went to Boston, where he worked as a mechanic.

The young man was a born inventor, and showed it by constantly suggesting small improvements in the machine shop where he worked. The notion of a sewing machine first came into his mind in 1841, soon after he came to Boston, and he became so interested that he gave up every evening to experiments. His first idea was to make a machine that would imitate the hand; that is, thrust a needle through cloth and push it back again. So his first needle was sharp at both ends and had an eye in the middle. For a whole year he worked on these lines, but was driven at last to abandon this method for one which would give a different form of stitch.

One day there flashed into his brain the idea of passing the thread through the cloth and securing it on the other side by another thread. Here was the germ of the modern lock-stitch. Howe went on to make a shuttle and a curved needle, and at last, in the autumn of 1844, he put together his first machine, and to his great delight found that it would work. This machine, besides its special needle and shuttle, had a feed mechanism and holding surfaces to keep the cloth in position.

Feeling certain that success was within his grasp, Howe gave up his work in the machine shop and devoted all his time to an attempt to make his new machine known. First he made for himself a suit of clothes with the machine, and next he challenged five of the most expert sewers in a Boston clothing factory to a sewing match. Each was to sew one strip of cloth, but Howe himself was to sew five strips before any of the others had completed one. Howe’s triumph was complete, for his five strips were finished before any one of the handworkers had completed even half of his task.

The young inventor was delighted. He expected
Howe's Machine
Howe's Machine
congratulations, but instead met with black looks and threats. "Trying to take the bread out of poor men’s mouths!" was muttered on every side, and soon to his horror the inventor heard of a plot to smash his machine and drive him out of the town. He had spent all his money, he had given up his work, and had made himself so unpopular that no one would employ him, so in despair he followed Thimonier’s example, and went to other towns, exhibiting his machine for a small admission fee. Meanwhile he left his wife with his father in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Misfortune piled upon misfortune; his father’s house was burned down, and black ruin stared the Howes in the face. Yet Elias did not lose heart, and took odd jobs so as to provide food and shelter for his family.

At last the tide turned. The young inventor fell in with a man named Walter Fisher, who was an old schoolfellow and had a business as coal dealer. Fisher saw the possibilities of the machine, and put up five hundred dollars in return for a half-interest in the patent, if one could be obtained. In December, 1844, Howe moved to the house of his friend, and set to work to construct a perfect model, which he finished in the spring of 1845. But though many people saw the machine and all praised it, no one would buy it. Howe was forced to take work on a railway, but his health broke down and once more matters looked black indeed. But Elias Howe was not the man to give up, and, scraping together a little money, he sent his brother Amasa to England with the model, to see if he could find some one there who would take it up. Amasa succeeded in making terms with William Thomas, a staymaker who had a shop in Cheapside. This man offered two hundred and fifty pounds for the use of the machine, and sent word to Elias that he would give him work at three pounds a week if he came over. Elias thereupon went to London taking his wife and their children, and set to work for the staymaker. Thomas, however, proved a hard master, and, at the end of eight months, Elias threw up his position. He used the last of his money to send his wife and children back to America, then set doggedly to work to find some one to finance his invention. No one would look at it, however, and in the end the inventor was forced to pawn his model so as to raise funds to return home. He had heard his wife was very ill, and he longed to see her. He reached Cambridge to find her dying, and a few days later she was buried.

Even now Fate had not done its worst, for the inventor found that various unscrupulous people had pirated his machine, and were using and selling their models. Yet Howe would not despair, and somehow or other he raised money to redeem the model which he had left in London and to start actions against those who were infringing his patent. As was the case with Morse, Howe found that the United States Supreme Court had little toleration for patent thieves, and he won a hard-fought victory. Then came the discovery that the thieves who had tried to steal his machine were liable for the payment of royalties. Money began to flow in, and, into the bargain, the lawsuits had given the sewing machine a great advertisement. In a very short time Howe was comfortably off, and before his patent expired in 1867 he and his partner had received two million dollars in royalties alone.

Howe’s machine was shown at the Paris Exhibition in 1867, and was awarded a gold medal, while Howe himself received that much coveted French decoration, the Legion of Honor. His income at this time was two hundred thousand dollars a year. But the poor man’s health had been broken by his long struggles for success, and in October, 1867, he died in his house at Brooklyn.

Howe’s machine, wonderful as it was, looks very rough and crude compared with the light and dainty modern machine. In order to trace the development of this we must go back to 1849, when Allen Wilson, a young inventor, who knew nothing of Howe’s invention, created a sewing machine on very similar lines to Howe’s, but in some respects superior. Like Howe’s it had a curved needle. One of these machines was sent one day to a New York factory for repair, and fell into the hands of a young mechanic named Isaac Singer, who, after looking it over, came to the conclusion that he could make a better one. Singer’s principal idea was that a straight needle would be an improvement upon the curved one.

In 1850 he set to work, but a hard struggle awaited him. He had to contend with popular prejudice due to the previous failures of others to produce a successful
First Singer Machine
First Singer Machine
working machine. Starting with a capital of forty dollars —and that borrowed—discouragements and disappointments met him at every turn, for a man who pretended to have a working sewing machine was considered an impostor. Thousands had bought other machines which they were obliged to throw away as useless. Whoever then attempted to introduce a new sewing machine had to face the consequences of previous failures, and this Mr. Singer quickly learned to his sorrow. Everywhere he found people unwilling to believe that a successful sewing machine had actually been built, and repeatedly he was shown to the door the moment he had stated his business. Still the undaunted mechanic struggled on in poverty, bearing up under reverses and disappointments— actually, at one time, giving practical sewing demonstrations with his own machine on doorsteps to prove his point. Slowly and by degrees he gained the confidence of the public. His machine received a trial, and every time it made good. And so this humble millwright, who in 1850 was working for a dollar and a half a day, died twenty-five years later worth fifteen million dollars, leaving a name—the name of Singer, which is a household word to-day.

Another inventor to whom users of sewing machines owe a great debt is the late James G. Gibbs, who made the first successful chain-stitch machine. Howe, Wilson, Singer, and Gibbs were the pioneers of the sewing machine, but many others have helped to perfect it, more than one thousand different patents having been taken out for various improvements.

To-day sewing of every kind is done by machinery, from delicate embroidery to the stitching of boot soles, and the sewing machine is found all over the world, from the shores of the Arctic Ocean to the leaf-thatched hut of the African Negro.

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© 2000, 2001, 2002 by Lynn Waterman