Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

Alternate Power

by Graham Forsdyke
Issue No. 29

Away with treadle slavery ...

... so read an early advertisement for a sewing-machine motor

FOR SOME TIME I've been meaning to update an earlier story -- from back in the days when we were twinned with a typewriter magazine -- on the various early forms of motors designed to take the strain out of sewing.

Much was made at the time of the health hazards of treadle sewing and most motor advertisers jumped on this particular wagon.

Now quite a lot more information has come to hand and we'll divide what is to follow into various sections. ~~Graham Forsdyke

Spring power

Four major manufacturers tried to break into the market with spring-powered motors.

In America the largest of these was The Universal Spring Motor Co of Tremont Street, Boston, Mass, who designed its product to sit in a steel box beneath the table of the machine, necessitating the removal of the conventional treadle mechanism completely.

I've not seen one of these motors, but advertisements show a spindle to which a crank would be fitted for winding and two levers, one presumably for speed adjustment and the other for stopping the machine.

Universal was in business for a least 10 years during the 1880s.

American competition came from the Nashville, Tenn, company of P Byrne who, in 1886, produced a motor which it was claimed could be fitted to any .

Contemporary advertising shows a converted machine with a frighteningly large number of gears meshing away just where a woman's dress would rest. What I can't see is any form of speed regulator to stop the machine running away with itself. Perhaps there was a simple friction device, in which case I doubt the claims for longevity made by the makers.

The winding mechanism was situated under the treadle table and there would be no chance of the operator giving a quick wizz to the handle. Clearly the chair would have to be removed and it would appear that the most natural method of winding would be to do it on one's knees.

In Europe at least two other motors were on offer. Gunzberger produced a motor which would probably have quite a sewing duration once it was wound and had a speed adjuster controlled by bob-weights. It was clearly designed for industrial use. But I doubt if any manufacturers would have welcomed a machine which took up as much floor area as the machine itself.

The other motor which made some headway in the UK was the Koch and with this model we have a contemporary report which shows up what I suspect was the failing of all such devices.

In the Sewing Machine Advance for 1887, in a review of an international exhibition at the London Aquarium, the author referred to his disquiet at hearing that it took a full two minutes to wind up and then would only run for four minutes.

The show demonstrator pointed out, however, that if the operator took time off from sewing every minute to give a couple of tugs on the lever winder, the motor would remain running.

No wonder spring power never caught on.

Water motors

Power derived from harnessing the pressure of water coming from the mains enjoyed a short-lived vogue in the 1880s.

After some early attempts to build crank engines similar to those used with steam, the industry settled down to producing turbines where the pressure of the water would drive a turbine -- a real water wheel -- and thus, through a pulley and belt, the machine.

Largest of the British manufacturers was Thomas Wheeler, an engineer from Preston, Lancashire, who produced a range of six motors from a quarter to one horse power. Prices ranged from £1 12s 6d (£1.62) to £9.

He had motors to fit beneath the work table as on the Starley or versions to bolt onto the table for pulley connection to the hand wheel.

At such cheap prices and with, presumably, unmetered water, he should have stood a chance especially as, if correctly made, such a turbine would be virtually silent in operation.

Perhaps it was the thought of having two hosepipes dragging across the living-room carpet (one to take the used water to a drain) that turned the public off.

Aimed at the industrial market, the Taylor company produced a motor with the exhausted water going back through the floor. The water supply entered the motor via a tap attached to a pedal by which the operator could adjust the speed.

The Backus Company (what an extraordinary name for a water company) produced a motor which would sit under the machine in place of the flywheel.

Stitch speeds of up to 1,000 per minute were claimed for the smaller Bacus motors, but the New Jersey manufacturer also produced larger industrial units which could run up to 100 machines at the same time.

Perhaps less practical was the motor developed by the Lane Brothers in Duchess County, New York.

In a bid perhaps to make the motor more acceptable to the houseproud city-dweller (and remember there was no mains water outside of the biggest towns) the Lanes turned their motor through 90 degrees and laid it flat on the top of the three-legged plant-pot table.

It may have scored some sartorial points but it still needed two hoses and, because of its design, it had to be clamped to the in some way to maintain drive. And to convert the drive back to the vertical a pair of gears were needed, probably making it noisy in action.

The Bolgiano company of Baltimore City managed to do away with one of the hoses by mounting the motor over the sink -- just how it was held in place is not clear.

We've a receipt for a motor dated 1894, but I can't believe that the company was too successful. After all, how many women would want to push their into the bathroom before running up a seam?

Perhaps the most utilitarian of all the watermotors was that offered by H Q Hawley (I'd love to know what the Q stood for) of Albany, New York.

As early as 1875 he was anticipating problems with the water companies over lost profits from so much good clean water being used and then drained away by his motors.

He spent much time writing to them to assure them that his motors used very little water and that, if there was a shortage, the companies would be able to charge for it by volume and thus increase their revenues.

Surprisingly, as late as 1913, water power still had its advocates.

The German firm of Luft and Wasserkrafty of Dresden was advertising a motor and showed it fitted to a Willcox & Gibbs machine.

What's more surprising is that it appears from the drawing that the company had gone back to a piston motor with two cylinders and a complicated valve gear.

Steam et al

With steam being the prime motive power in industry in the 1880s, it's not surprising that there should have been attempts to miniaturize engines for use in the home.

Illustration No.1 shows what is, in theory, quite a practical solution, using the kitchen range as a heat source.

Although, unless a very long belt was used, I would have thought the lady's back might have got a little warm, especially during the summer months.

Picture 2 asks us to believe that a) an oil lamp would produce enough heat to boil sufficient water to provide the steam pressure necessary to run a machine under load and b) if it did some brave soul would sit with that same boiler at a little over her height! What on earth would the insurance companies have to say about it?

Picture 3, and from the look of the machine a very early print, almost appears to be using a hot-air engine which, given its size, I doubt would have produced the power necessary to drive the machine.

I wondered for a moment how one would stop and start it, but that's probably quite academic.

All the above have their limitations to say the least, but the Bisschop gas engine of 1880 was probably quite a practical proposition.

It was designed by J E H Andrew, a Stockport engineer, expressly to drive domestic and with the need for fuel replenishment and the fear of boiler explosion done away with, it probably failed only on aesthetics.

Not every Victorian housewife would have wanted such an industrial piece of machinery in her sewing room, especially as oil engines were seldom odor free.


We all know that this was the ultimate solution, but in the early years inventors battled to improve storage batteries in attempts to get machines to run for a decent period before batteries had to be re-charged with fresh diluted sulphuric acid.

The advent of mains AC electricity didn't bring a sweeping change and it wasn't until Singer promoted its own bolt-on motor in the 1920s that motorized sewing became an accepted form. And it was only after the second world war that electric machine began to outsell treadle and hand models.

We end with a picture from the 1920s by the Singer Company of a housewife plugging in for the first time

Even then it was necessary for the manufacturers to point out that it would only work if you had electricity in the home.

Perhaps the cleverest idea to come from the 1880s was this invention of New Jersey, USA, engineer Philip Diehl. He did away with the need for belting and the presence of a separate unit by building the motor into the drive wheel of the machine. He mounted the armature winding inside the flywheel and the field magnet inside it.