GF looks into the strange affair of Walter Hunt ...
The man who abandoned a fortune
by Graham Forsdyke
ASK ANY sewing-machine historian or knowledgeable collector just who invented the most-important element of a -- the eye-pointed needle -- and the answer will rocket back ... Elias Howe.
True, Howe patented the discovery and, indeed, made a large fortune out of the patent. But he wasn't the first to use it.
In fact a court battle in the 1850s showed conclusively Howe was not the originator of the eye-pointed needle and gave credit to Walter Hunt, a Massachusetts-born Quaker whose claim to the original invention as far back as 1835 was validated by the judges. So how come Elias Howe amassed a fortune and became feted as the father of the American sewing-machine industry, and Hunt was destined to obscurity?
Although the court agreed that Hunt had indeed produced an eye-pointed need in 1835, it further felt that Hunt had virtually abandoned it.
The court case was, in fact, brought by Isaac Singer who was attempting to fight Howe's patent, for if Singer had been able to show that the invention was already some 20 years old Howe would not have been able to claim royalties for it.
But the judges, in their wisdom, felt that not only had Hunt abandoned his original design, but also that the original invention had only been resurrected in an attempt to strangle the Howe patent. "All the normal presumption should be in favor of the inventor who has been the means of conferring the real benefit on the world".
As part of the plan to defeat the Howe patent, Singer actually employed Hunt to build a based on his 1835 ideas but unfortunately this model, which had been carefully preserved in the Singer museum, was lost in a fire at the Elizabethport, New Jersey, factory in 1890.
Hunt has been called by historians a greater inventor even that Edison, but his great failing was the inability to market his ideas successfully. He grew up in Martinsburg in New York State, and by the time he was 30 he was the hero of the town. He had already invented a successful flax spinner which was marketed by the firm of Hunt and Hoskin who manufactured the device.
This partnership did not last long. When following an attempt to raise cash to enlarge the company's operations the two parted on less than friendly terms.
Next Hunt tried his luck as real-estate agent, but even then was still sending ideas to the patent office. One of these was a knife sharpener, another a bell for a streetcar, and then a stove for burning hard coal.
Not having Edison's business acumen, Hunt fell into the hands of money lenders, and each new idea which flowed from his fertile brain was quickly sold off to pay out outstanding bills.
His sewing-machine invention was conceived when he was but 39 years old, but for this he could get no bidders at all and the idea was shelved.
Not only did it feature an eye-pointed needle but also a shuttle carrying a second thread and a feed mechanism for advancing the cloth. Probably nothing more would ever have been heard of the invention were it not for the bitter patent litigation which developed in the 1850s.
Singer company researchers found out about the Hunt invention and had Hunt build a replica in an attempt to quash the Howe patent. But even with the might of Singer behind him, Hunt failed again.
With all these inventions to his credit, Hunt should have lived and died a rich man, but it is fair to say that he never had the time to get wealthy and most of his inventions were practically given away or stolen from him.
Even up until the year of his death -- 1859 -- he was still producing inventions and were his gravestone large enough it could give credit for artificial stone, road-sweeping machinery, velocipedes, ice ploughs, mail-making machinery and even safety pins and firearms. On his death an obituary called him the "Napoleon Bonaparte of invention". But it also added that the was his Austerlitz.