Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

Case Against Howe

Issue 36

As a not-too-serious entertainment at the Convention Graham Forsdyke delivered an anti-Howe tirade and is now sitting back waiting for American members to respond. Here's what he said:

Elias who?

WHAT I AM going to do here and now is to discredit Elias Howe, the man Americans call the inventor of the sewing machine.

I am going to touch on rumour and gossip working on the theory that there's no smoke without fire, but I'm not going to rely on that for my case.

Hard evidence will show that Howe invented nothing, that he was an ungrateful humbug who grew fabulously rich because of a silly filing error enabling him to spend the rest of his life and part of his fortune commissioning bogus biographies to perpetuate the myth.

Let's deal with the rumour and gossip first. And here I turn to the Greenville Daily News of South Carolina in 1908 which tells the story of a young student studying for the church who lived in Athens, Georgia.

This youth, the future Rev Francis R Goulding, was of an inventive frame of mind and between his bouts of studying produced a crude form of sewing machine which he would display with pride to anyone who would take notice.

It was in around 1835 that Goulding showed his machine to a young visitor from the north who was so impressed that he asked for demonstration after demonstration.

A few years later Goulding was thunderstruck to discover Howe had grown rich using the very design that had been demonstrated to him.

The Greenville Daily News in 1908 attempted to verify the story but the best the paper could do was contact two daughters of one of Goulding's class mates, the Rev William McWhorter. These two ladies, by then teachers in local schools, confirmed that their father had often related how his friend had been robbed by the visitor from the north.

That's one rumour. Here's another.

Howe used the brains of an Austrian mechanic, Florence Vercamp, to convert was little more than wishful thinking into a machine that would sew.

Vercamp was Howe's assistant for many years and joined him at a time when Howe was trying to make his crude machine function and it is claimed by some that without his inventive flair, the Howe machine would never have sewn a stitch.

Yes, the rumours aren't getting any more convincing. We'll move onto facts.

Just what was it that Howe invented?

Was it, as the Smithsonian insists, the eye-pointed needle.

No way. In a celebrated court case at a later date it was proved that an eye-pointed needle had been used in 1841 by Newton and Archbold in a machine the pair built and patented for stitching the fingers of gloves. That was four years before Howe's claim.

Was it the use of two pressing surfaces to hold the layers of cloth together. No, Newton and Archibold had just such a device in their 1841 patent and another Englishman, John Fisher, has a variable-tension foot arrangement in 1845.

Some say that Howe's greatest gift was the combination of shuttle and needle. Oh dear no - that same John Fisher beat him to that as well.

One small grain of credit must be allowed in Howe's use of a tension for the lower thread but this, apart from assembling a lot of other people's ideas, is all the credit he can get.

So how did Howe reap all the benefits normally accrued by a genuine inventor?

To understand this we must let our minds travel back to September 1846 when Howe or someone working for him finished his machine and obtained his American patent.

Howe then tells a story of how he came to England, fell among thieves, was stripped of his invention, cruelly treated, and sent home destitute.

A calm look at the facts will reveal the fallacy of all this drivel which appeared again and again in the bogus, paid-for-publicity biographies, that Howe was later to communicate.

Let's ask ourselves why Howe would look to the British market in the first place. There's only one reason. After he and his brother Amasa had hawked the prototype machine around every available outlet on the East Coast of the USA and met with nothing but ridicule, the pair decided to try to palm off the idea the American market didn't want on the British.

Amasa was duly packed off on the arduous trans-Atlantic trip with the brief to find a British manufacturer who would buy the crude device and the patent rights. Under the laws of the time Howe himself could not register the patent in England.

Arriving in England, Amasa approached Chancery Lane patent agent Vincent Newton and asked for introductions to likely purchasers.

Thus he met William Thomas of Cheapside who made stays and shoes. Howe asked 500 pounds but after one look at it Thomas laughed and declined.

For days Amasa contacted all the names that Newton could come up with and did not get an offer at all.

He then went back to Thomas and this time dropped the price to 250 to include the prototype and the patent rights. That 250 pounds, working on the price of a newspaper then and now, is equivalent to about 35,000 pounds today. A high price, perhaps, for a machine that didn't work and, more importantly, no one else wanted.

At the same time Amasa told Thomas that Elias Howe was very keen to come to England for a visit and if Thomas would pay 50 guineas expenses for the trip and wages of 2 pounds per week, Elias would finish the work on the machine.

On Elias's arrival, Thomas took pity on the illiterate American and advanced his salary to 3 pounds 3s per week (well over 300 pounds by our newspaper yardstick).

After being in his new situation for some time and despite making great advances in getting the machine to sew properly, Elias approached Thomas, asking the Englishman to front the money for passage for Howe's wife and children. Although this cost Thomas another 84, he increased Howe's salary by a third when the family arrived.

For nearly two years Howe laboured on but could effect no improvement although he did manage to obtain several hundreds of pounds in the way of bonuses for working on other machines in the Thomas factory.

Despite all this money he still managed to get into debt and eventually he left his benefactor hoping to do even better elsewhere. This he clearly failed to do for he ran up more and more debts and was eventually thrown into Whitecross Street prison and passed through the insolvent-debtors court.

As to Howe's claim that Thomas promised him a cut on any machines eventually sold in British, this was pure rubbish. The sale of the machine and its rights were carried out by solicitors in proper legal contracts. It's inconceivable that if a levy on machine sales had been agreed, it would not have been included also.

So now we have Howe destitute and begging for the steerage fare home to America. Back in his own country he found that sewing machines had taken off in a big way and that most of the models being produced contravened his original, dubious patent, taken out in 1846.

By borrowing money he took one manufacturer after the other to court. Some fought for a while, others just gave in.

Only one was inclined to really fight and show Howe's patent to be worthless.

That was Isaac Merritt Singer who was determined to show that the Howe invention contained no original thought whatsoever.

All he had to find were earlier inventions which covered Howe's ideas. To this end he employed a team of investigators and sent them out from the USA to the principal countries of Europe to comb the patent libraries.

I now want you to imagine the search in England. Singer's agent goes along to the patent office to start his investigations.

There were two patent offices, in London and in Manchester. He probably landed in Liverpool and, therefore, the closest library would have been Manchester.

He enters the dusty portals and explains to the clerk that he wants to see all that they have on sewing machines.

The clerk beams. Only a couple of years earlier the complete patent library had been re-indexed and bound volumes produced to cover every specific subject. "I'll get you the sewing one" he would have said.

A short time ago I bought the complete bound records from the same Manchester office and I have here the very book that the clerk handed to Singer's agent. This is it.

Beautiful, bound - all indexed in chronological order. Relieved that his task had been made easy and perhaps looking to an evening in the local gin palace, the Singer man opened it.

The first patent rocked him. It was taken out by Christopher Hunt in 1638 - over 200 years earlier. He needn't have worried. It wasn't really a patent at all - simply the outline for embroidery of gilded leather.

He turned to the second-ever British patent and a jump to 1844. Leonard Bostwick described a crude running-stitch device with a curved needle - no worries here.

The next patent on 6 January 1846 by Arthur Eldred Walker was for a sewing machine but an unlikely-looking machine which carried none of the important novelties that Howe claimed as his own.

The next patent in the book was a specification assigned to William Thomas - in fact the Howe patent.

Singer's agent had found nothing. On hearing the news Isaac Merrit Singer's heart sank and he eventually had to settle on Howe's terms.

But was relying on the patent office's indexing system a wise move?

A short time ago I went to the book to check a patent. It wasn't there. I knew it existed. Nothing had been torn from the volume. This was a mystery.

Then I remembered that Newton Wilson had discovered Saint's sewing-machine patent tucked away under another heading and I remembered reading in an article by Newton Wilson written long after the patents had expired that he considered one John Fisher had really invented the sewing machine. But there is no John Fisher in this book.

I eventually found the Fisher patent, fitted under lace manufacturing. And what did he use to make the lace? - a sewing machine.

What's more it was a sewing machine with a shuttle working in combination with a needle, the very essence of Howe's claim and dated 7 December 1844 - a full 21 months before the American's patent.

We can only wonder how the course of history would have been changed if the patent office clerk doing the indexing had been a little more thorough or if Singer's agent hadn't been so anxious to get to the gin palace.

Certainly the information would have given Singer more ammunition with which to fight Howe.

So add the rumour to the facts and with only a smidgen of wishful thinking we can relegate Howe from inspired inventor to lucky opportunist so embittered that he fabricated an entire new story involving his trip to England and attempted to fool posterity by paying authors to perpetuate his version of the truth.

I rest my case.