Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

Almost a millionaire -- GF considers
John A Greenough's claim to fame

by Graham Forsdyke
Issue 24

WHILST THE History of sewing-machine invention recalls many successes and many failures, the story of John A Greenough is perhaps a mixture of the two.

Greenough, the man credited with the first American sewing-machine patent, was an inventor, scientist, lawyer, medical student, philosopher and author. He is credited with having made over 100 million dollars -- but only for other people, not for himself. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1812, the son of William and Mary Greenough. His early education was at public schools in Boston, and when a young man he took up the study of medicine at a doctor's office. Then his attention turned to law and he eventually successfully passed his bar examination.

Whilst running his law business, Greenough spent much of his spare time studying mechanical engineering and soon inventions began to flow from his agile mind. He invented a shoe-pegging machine which he sold for $20,000 -- it seemed like a good price at the time but it eventually made millions for its new proprietors.

He assisted in the construction of the first locomotive to be run by electricity which operated from Washington DC.

Before the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight from Kittiwake, Greenough had taken out a patent for a device which he believed contained the elements of flight. he cast aside all the devices run by hot air as a waste of time and declared that the first step towards flight must be for the device to lift itself from the ground by the same engine which would power it through the air.

In 1832 he and his brother opened a foundry in Boston and the next year he was publishing a penny magazine based on a British periodical. It was the first pictorial magazine to be published in America. His fame as an inventor was recognized by the American patent office in Washington, and in 1837, a year after the great fire, he was appointed to the position of superintending the restoration of drawing following the conflagration.

It was in that same year that he invented a , but before applying for the patent he took on the patent-office job and this precluded him from benefiting from his work.

On retiring from the government job he failed his application for the sewing-machine patent, in 1841, and was granted it a year later. In 1853 Greenough and two others started publication of the American Polytechnic Journal in which the claims of all current United States patents were printed with illustrations. At the close of the year Greenough sold the engravings to the commissioner of patents to illustrate the official report. This was the beginning of the illustrated reports issued annually by the patent department.

Although Greenough's patent was granted in 1842, he did absolutely nothing about it until 1850 and, with just one year before its expiration, he sold it to the Singer company for $500.

This may well seem a small sum for a patent which virtually controlled every produced for part of it concerned a reference which covered any kind of endless feed that might be devised.

The Greenough device used a two-pointed needle with a central hole for the thread. The needle was fed backwards and forwards through the material, being grasped by pincers at the end of each stroke.

What prevented Greenough securing a fortune in royalties from the use of the feed patent was that, by the time he attempted to profit by it, many other patents had been filed and so many different feed mechanisms were in use that the patent commissioners held that it would be a practical impossibility to enforce the Greenough design.

The inventor died at the age of 87, well provided for but by no means a millionaire. Even in the last year of his life he was working, and just six months before his death published a book on the origins of superstition. GF