Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

Chapter 2

Growth of the idea

THE IDEA of sewing by machinery had been cherished for a hundred years before the first successful machine was built.

The earliest attempt at sewing by machinery of which any authentic account exists was made as early as July 24th,1755, when a machine was patented in England by Charles F. Weisenthal, having a needle with two points and an eye at mid-length.

The next was that of Thomas Saint, of England, who obtained a patent July 17,1790. This man seems to have understood, with remarkable clearness, the main essential features of the invention, for his machine had a horizontal cloth-plate, an overhanging arm, at the end of which was a needle working vertically, and a "feed" working automatically between the stitches.

These features have been preserved in every successful machine ever made. The needle was notched at the lower end, to push the thread through the goods, which had been previously punctured by an awl. As the needle passed upwards, leaving a loop in the thread, a loop-check caught the loop and held it until the needle descended again, enchaining the thread of the new loop in the former one.

In 1804 an Englishman, named Duncan, made a chain-stitch machine, having a number of hooked needles, which passed through the cloth and were supplied with thread beneath the goods by a feeding needle, whereupon the needles receded, each drawing a loop through the loop previously drawn by itself through the cloth.

In 1818 Rev. John A Dodge, of Monkton, Vt., invented and, with the assistance of John Knowles, an ingenious mechanic, constructed a machine having the double-pointed needle and eye at mid-length. It made a stitch identical with the ordinary "backstitch" and was furnished with an automatic device for "feeding" the work.

Mr. Dodge never applied for a patent, nor attempted to manufacture any more machines, because of the great pressure upon his time as a pastor, and further on account of the bitter opposition of journeymen tailors, who denounced the machine as an invasion of their rights.

The first patent issued in America for a sewing machine was that of a man named Lye, in the year 1826. Lye's device could hardly have contained any useful or striking features, for when the fire of 1836 destroyed all the Patent Office Records, it consumed all that remained of this machine.

In the year 1830 Barthelemy Thimonnier, a Parisian, invented a machine which operated just as Saint's did, except that the needle was crocheted, and, descending through the goods, pulled up a lower thread and formed a series of loops upon the upper side of the goods. cloth.

Eighty of these machines, made of wood, are said to have been used at one time in Paris, making army clothing; but though patented in France in August, 1848, and in the United States September 3, 1850, it had too many defects to become anything more than an important stop in the onward march of this great invention.

Many other machines, of' more or less merit, were constructed before Mr. Singer made his machine, but all fell short of being practical and useful.

The nearest approach to success prior to 1850 was made by Walter Hunt, of New York City, in the years 1832-3-4. His machine had a curved needle, with an eye near the needle- point, which was operated on the end of a vibrating arm.

A loop was formed beneath the cloth by the needle-thread, through which a shuttle, reeling off another thread, was forced back and forth with each stitch, making an interlocked stitch like that now made by the best machines. George A Arrowsmith, a black- smith, of Woodbridge, NJ, being of a speculative turn, bought one-half of Walter Hunt's invention in 1834, and afterwards acquired the remainder. Soon afterwards, Adoniram F Hunt, a brother of Walter, was employed by Arrowsmith to construct some upon the same principle, but different somewhat in arrangement of details from the original.

These machines were made and operated at a machine shop in Amos Street, New York City. Arrowsmith neglected to obtain a patent upon the machine for reasons which, in the light of events now past, make singularly interesting reading.

He assigned three reasons for not procuring a patent: (1) He had other business; (2) the expense of patenting; (3) the supposed difficulty of introducing them into use, saying, it "would have cost two or three thousand dollars to start the business." There appeared also a prejudice against any machine which had a tendency to dispense with female labour.

A proposition made by Walter Hunt to his daughter to engage in the corset-making business with a sewing machine was declined, after consultation with her female friends, principally, if not altogether, as she afterwards testified, "on the ground that the introduction of such a machine into use would be injurious to the interests of hand-sewers. I found that the machine would at that time be very unpopular, and, therefore, refused to use it."

The neglect of Hunt and Arrowsmith to procure a patent upon this was fraught with momentous consequences a few years later, not only to them but to the entire sewing-machine trade and the world at large.

John J Greenough, on February 21, 1842, procured the first sewing-machine patent in America of which any official record now exists.

His machine sewed with two threads, both of which were entirely passed through the cloth at every stitch, the needles being pulled by pincers through holes previously bored with an awl. It was designed principally for leather work.

R W Bean of New York City, patented a machine, March 4, 1843, for making a "running" or basting stitch.

Another machine, having two threads and generally like Greenough's, was patented December 27, 1843, by George R Corliss, of Greenwich, NY.

It had eye-pointed needles reciprocated in horizontal paths, through holes previously made by awls, the goods being fastened between clamps and fed in front of the needles.

Another form of , of which several varieties were patented between 1844 and 1850, adopted the somewhat primitive method of first crimping the cloth and then forcing it upon the needle, which was driven through a number of thicknesses at the same time, making a running stitch.

In the year 1846, or over 12 years after Walter Hunt's machine was built, Elias Howe, Jr., having probably ascertained that Hunt had never patented his machine, built a upon the Hunt plan, adding two puerile devices (both of which were subsequently abandoned as useless), and procured a patent thereon in his own name.

These devices were a "clipping piece" to control the unwinding of the shuttle-thread, and a "baster-plate" to which the work was basted, and thus hung vertically in front of the machine.

This machine never became of real utility until the inventions of Mr. Singer, five years later, had been added to the principles of action applied originally by Hunt and appropriated by Howe. After Singer's inventions had been recognised as giving to the a practical and immense value, Walter Hunt testified, under oath, as follows:

"ELIAS HOWE has several times stated to me that he was satisfied that I was the first inventor of the machine for sewing a seam by means of the eye-pointed needle, the shuttle and two threads, but said that he had the prior right to the invention because of my delay in applying for letters-patent."

In the year 1853, Hunt applied for a patent upon his invention, but was refused upon the ground of abandonment.

Judge Charles Mason, Commissioner of Patents, in delivering his decision I May, 1854, upon the evidence in Hunt's application, using the following language:

"Hunt claims priority upon the ground that he invented the Sewing Machine previous to the invention of Howe. He proves that in 1834 or 1835 he contrived a machine by which he actually affected his purpose of sewing cloth with considerable success.

Upon a careful consideration of the testimony, I am disposed to think that he had then carried his invention to the point of patentability. I understand from the evidence that HUNT actually made a working machine in 1834 or 1835.

The papers in this case show that Howe obtained a patent for substantially this same invention in 1846."

Notwithstanding this, the Commissioner was forced to refuse Hunt's belated application, for the reason that an Act of Congress in 1839 had provided that inventors could not pursue their claims to priority in patents unless application was made within two years from the date when the first sale of the invention was made.

Hunt had sold a machine in 1834 and had neglected to make application for his patent till 1853.

Thus it was that one of the grandest opportunities of the century was missed by the man who should rightfully have enjoyed it; the honours and emoluments of the great invention passed to a man who neither had invented a single principle of action, nor applied a practical improvement to principles already recognised; and Elias Howe, Jr, acquired the power, by simply patenting another man's invention, to obstruct every subsequent inventor, and finally to dictate the terms which gave rise to the great Sewing Machine Combination about which the world has heard -and scolded -so much.

Howe's machine was not, even in 1851, of practical utility. From 1846 to 1851 he had the field to himself, but the invention lay dormant in his hands.

He held control of the cardinal principles upon which the coming machine must needs be built, and planted himself squarely across the path of improvement -an obstructionist, not an inventor -and when, in 1851, Isaac M

Singer perfected the improvements necessary to make Hunt's principles of real utility, Howe, after long and expensive litigation, laid Singer and all subsequent improvers under heavy contribution for using the principles of Hunt, patented by himself.

Morey & Johnson procured a patent February 6, 1849, for a single-thread machine, making a stitch by a hook acting in combination with a needle.

Lerow & Blodgett patented a machine October 2, 1849, the peculiar feature of which was that the shuttle was driven entirely around a circle at each stitch.

This took a twist out of the thread at every revolution, and was soon abandoned, but not before Howe had sued the proprietors and laid them under tribute.

Allen B Wilson invented a double-pointed shuttle, making a stitch at each passage of the shuttle, which he patented November 12, 1850.

Grover & Baker, February 11, 1851, obtained a patent for a machine using two needles, one passing through the goods and the other operating beneath the cloth.

Other patents, of more or less value, were obtained, but not yet had a of any practical working value been produced. Machines had been made by hundreds, factories had been built for their manufacture, territorial rights had been sold for machines that contained more or less merit, but which would not and could not do continuous stitch.

The idea of a successful substitute for woman's deft fingers at sewing had come to be regarded much as the Member of Parliament viewed the project of an ocean steamship, when he offered to "eat the first ship that should cross the Atlantic by steam!" The had bitterly disappointed those who purchased it for use in the household; it had bankrupted those who sought to manufacture; it had turned to ashes upon the lips of those who bought territorial rights.

If any one had profited by it, it was the vendor of territorial rights. Indeed, a patentee named Blodgett told Singer he was an idiot for presuming to make to sell.

They would not work, and the only money to be made out of the business was in "selling territorial rights".

Deep-seated distrust pervaded the public mind, and well-deserved odium had settled upon the entire invention. Such was the state of affairs when Isaac M Singer turned his versatile mind towards the Sewing Machine.

To be continued....