Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

Fraudulent fortune: Howe is accused again

by Graham Forsdyke
Issue 53
October 1996

A STORY has come to light which suggests the fortunes of the great sewing-machine manufacturers and the patents from which they derived their millions were acquired fraudulently

A Captain Rouffner attempted to blow the gaff in 1885. He claimed that Howe got his ideas from the machine made by Walter Hunt in New York in 1832. But that Howe went ahead, patented his model, and then started to hawk it in America and England.

By the time he got back from England he found three machines in America that would sew. All, he claimed, were based on his patent: the Singer, the Wheeler & Wilson and the Grover & Baker.

He discovered that Singer had sold 4,000 machines and brought suits against him. He succeeded in getting judgement for $80,000 royalty on those sold and further established a royalty of $20 on each machine to be sold in future by any of the three firms.

About this time rumours were reaching the three companies that models made by Hunt and pre-dating Howe's were actually in existence.

The great model hunt was on, and eventually one was tracked down in Baltimore.

Representatives of the three companies held a consultation and sent for Howe.

They showed him the model and their proof that Hunt had invented the sewing machine long before Howe's patent was applied for.

Howe, claims Rouffner, was broken up badly and made a clean breast of it. Howe left the office and only a chance meeting in the street with his lawyer prevented a very different end to the story.

When he had had the entire matter confided to him, the lawyer simply said "Let's go back; I'll fix this".

"Now, gentlemen", said the lawyer addressing the sewing-machine proprietors "you are simply killing the goose that lays the golden egg".

"If you let it be known about Hunt's model and refuse to pay Mr. Howe his royalty, you will then have to sell your machines at $25 instead of $125, for everyone else will be able to manufacture machines.

"Inside the year there will be 100 sewing machines on the market, all of them using the patent that you hold, which would become absolutely worthless.

They saw the point and a compromise was effected by which Howe would continue to get a royalty of $2 instead of $20. $2 also went into a general fund to fight other companies into submission.

Just who Captain Rouffner was, or how he came to be privy to a verbatim account of what went on at this first meeting of the notorious combination, is not clear. Nor is it known what became of the Hunt machine that had been discovered

However, it's an interesting supposition that all those fortunes were founded on fraud.