Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Elias Howe,
the Inventor of the Sewing Machine

For centuries and tens of centuries the needle has been in use as woman's especial tool. From the remote stone age down to the present day the song of "Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!" has been sung, and only about sixty years ago did the whirr of the sewing-machine begin to serve as the chorus to this wearisome song. Then a poor inventor of Yankee-land set his wits to work, and when he ended the machine was devised whose merry music may be heard to-day in hundreds of thousands of homes.

Poor Elias Howe! The story of his life reads like a romance; but, like that of many inventors, it was a romance of poverty, misfortune, endless discouragements, stern perseverance, a clinging to one idea through the darkest of days, and, in the end, success. He would have been a far happier man if the fever of invention had not seized upon him, but millions of households would have been less happy if he, or some one like him, had not brought ease and rest to the fingers of the sewing-woman.

Elias Howe was born in Spencer, Massachusetts, July 19, 1819. He was born to poverty and hard work. Until he was sixteen years old he dug and delved on his father's farm and wrought in his mill. Then he went to Lowell and learned the machinist's trade, and from there to Cambridge—a frail, sickly fellow, barely able to earn a living on account of persistent ill health. Yet he married, and by the time he was twenty-three had a wife and three children to support. Then, one day, he happened to hear some men in the shop talking of what a useful thing a sewing-machine would be, and the true work of Elias Howe's life began. From that day on, the idea of inventing such a machine stirred in his mind and would not let him rest.

The idea was new only to him. Many had tried it before, but with no great success. The first invention dates back to 1755, when Charles F. Weisenthal, of England, patented a needle with an eye in the centre and pointed at both ends. Several other inventions were made, intended for embroidering, and some also for sewing shoes and gloves, but none of them making a firm, secure, and satisfactory stitch. The task of accomplishing this was left for Elias Howe.

From the time he heard the men talking in the shop Howe was haunted with the idea. In the evening, after his day's work was done, he would sit for hours in his humble home, watching his wife's busy fingers as her needle went in and out through the cloth, and thinking deeply as he sat. Up to this time, through all the ages, the hand of woman had been the one sewing machine, and his first idea was to make a machine that would work like the fingers of a seamstress. For a year he watched and worked, trying various devices, but in the end he gave this project up. He saw that a stitch of a different kind was needed.

His constant thought at length bore fruit. A single thread evidently would not do. It would not hold. If broken it would ravel out. All previous machines had used one thread, but to do work that would hold two threads were needed. He was now on the right track, that of the lock stitch. The idea came to him of using a needle with an eye near the point, passing through the cloth and making a loop in the thread, and a shuttle carrying another thread and darting backward and forward, carrying its thread through the loop and locking the stitch by the joint movements of needle and shuttle.

It was a happy idea. It contained the principle on which the sewing-machine of to-day is based. It is true that there are single thread sewing-machines now in use which make a stitch that is all right if the thread does not break; but it is all wrong if it does. The shuttle was Howe's great invention, and it is the life of the sewing machine.

But it is one thing to have an idea in the mind, and another thing to make it work in wood and metal. Feeble in health, empty in pocket, the young inventor had a difficult task before him. His father could not help him, for he was as poor as himself. Finally he found a friend who believed in his idea, and who had money. This was George Fisher, a Cambridge wood and coal dealer, who agreed to give Mr. Howe and his family a home and food and to furnish him with five hundred dollars for his experiments. For this he was to have a half interest in the invention, if one should be made.

At last poor Howe had the opportunity to work out his ideas. The garret of Fisher's house was his workshop, and there he toiled diligently day after day, his day often running far into the night. For a great part of the year he kept at it, planning and devising, trying various ways of making his needle and shuttle work, experimenting in a dozen directions. Finally, in April, 1845, he had it so far perfected that it would sew a seam, and in July he proved what it could do by making with his machine a suit of woolen clothes for himself and another for Mr. Fisher. Success was at length attained. Crude as the machine was, it contained the essential features of the splendid machines made to-day.

Howe's needle was a great invention, without which no sewing-machine would be available. So was his shuttle. The two together made the firmest of stitches. His needle at first worked horizontally, and the cloth was passed vertically through the machine. But it was not long before the needle was set to work vertically, and the cloth was laid upon the table of the machine, with devices to move it at proper speed under the needle. This done, victory was gained.

So far the difficulties had been workshop labor. Now the inventor had a fight with the world before him, and he found it a terrible one. The machine was completed, it was patented, it was offered to the tailoring trade, but nobody would buy it. Tailors looked at it, saw it work, said that it was no doubt very ingenious and might be useful—but they would not buy it. It was costly, and might soon get out of order. And if successful, think of the thousands of men and women it would throw out of work! In the end Mr. Fisher got tired of keeping Howe and his family for his interest in a machine that would not sell, and the older Mr. Howe was obliged to take them in. He was too poor to support them, and Elias got a place as rail-road engineer, and the precious machine was banished to a corner. As for Fisher, in the end he grew to look so contemptuously on the invention that he was ready to sell his half interest in it for a small sum, and Howe succeeded in regaining possession of the whole.

As soon as he had saved a little money, Elias sent his brother Amasa to England with the model of his machine, to see if it could be introduced there. Amasa made some sort of arrangement with a corset-maker, and Elias, with new hope, set off with his wife and children for London, trusting to find a market for his wares. But it was the same story over again. Everywhere he met with discouragement and disappointment. The corset-maker did not treat him fairly, his money ran very low, and he was forced to send his wife and children back again to his father, staying himself in London in hope of better luck.

No luck came, his last dollar was spent, and in the end he had to pawn his model and patent papers for money enough to bring him home again. He landed in New York, and there received the distressing news that his wife was dying of consumption in Cambridge.

The poor fellow had not money enough to pay rail-road fare, he was too weak to walk, and he had to stay where he was until some one sent him money enough to bring him home to his dying wife. He reached Cambridge barely in time to see her alive. Soon the spirit of the faithful wife and mother, whose busy needle had formed the inspiration for his machine, passed away and left him almost heart-broken.

It may well be that poor Howe wished he could follow her himself and give up the fight. It was now 1849. Several years had been spent in America and England in destitution and constant disappointment; his labor, his time, his talent, had gone for nothing; ill health had been his companion, death had removed his wife, he and his children were a charge upon his father, many of his friends thought that he bad wasted his life in useless fancies; the outlook was enough to make him despair.

But there came a change in the tide of events. The inventor found friends ready to advance him money for a purpose next to be mentioned, and for the first time fortune began to smile on him. No doubt it was a bitter thought to him that the good wife who had shared his days of misery was not with him now that hope was rising in his sky.

The fact was that while he was in England his invention had been pirated in America, machines had been made on the principle discovered by him, and their makers, more fortunate than he, had found buyers for them. He came home to learn that his name was growing famous and his invention was fast corning into use. There were various inventors who had made improvements upon it, but all of them used his ideas in some form or other and were infringing upon his patent. He thereupon, aided by his friends, began a series of lawsuits against those who were using the ideas to which he had given years of his life, and especially against a Mr. Singer who was making money by selling an improvement upon his machine.

The battle in the courts was long and hard. The pirates fought fiercely. Among other things they unearthed a machine which had been worked upon by a Walter Hunt of New York about 1832, in which the lock-stitch was to be employed. But it was proved that this had been a dead failure, and in 1854 the courts decided in Howe's favor, ordering all the pirates to pay him a royalty on every machine they had made or should make. Thus, after ten years of desperate work, the inventor attained success.

He had opened a small factory in New York, but his royalties now began to pour money upon him much faster than his sales, and his total income from them amounted in time to over $2,000,000. He lived to see the machine to which he had given the best years of his life accepted as one of the world's greatest inventions, while honors were showered upon him. Among these were the Cross of the Legion of Honor, which came to him from France, and a gold medal from the French Exposition.

In 1861 he raised and equipped at his own expense a regiment for the Civil War, in which he served as a private until ill health compelled him to resign. His labors, his long anxiety and privation, his naturally frail constitution, were now telling upon him, and two years after the war, on the 3d of October, 1867, the famous inventor died.