[Adam Mossoff, guest-blogging, April 30, 2009 at 11:46am] Trackbacks
The Incremental Invention of the Sewing Machine (Part 2 of 2)

Despite the Old World efforts at inventing a sewing machine (discussed in Part 1), it was a series of American inventors, working in the 1840s and 1850s, who succeeded in threading the needle in creating the first practical sewing machine. Confirming Alex de Tocqueville's observation that "the Americans always display a clear, free, original, and inventive power of mind," it was American tradesmen and machinists who recognized that a practical and successful sewing machine could not simply replicate the motion of human hands. With this pragmatic approach to innovation, antebellum Americans easily made the conceptual leap from hand-motion to machine-motion, and thus proceeded to invent (and re-invent) the necessary elements that constituted the first practical sewing machine.

Beginning in the early 1840s, several American inventors received patents on sewing machines or sewing machine components, including George H. Corliss (who later achieved fame with his invention of the Corliss steam engine), but these turned out to be of little significance. It was not until 1843 that Elias Howe, Jr. invented his version of the sewing machine, which was then followed by a series of independent inventions and follow-on improvement inventions that ultimately produced the first fully functional and successful sewing machine in 1850. Howe is also personally responsible for launching the Sewing Machine War a few years later, which is a fitting symmetry that secures for him a foundational role in sewing machine history.

Impoverished and suffering ill health for much of his life, Howe was working as an apprentice of little consequence in a machine shop in Boston in 1839 when he overheard an inventor and a businessman talking about how a sewing machine could not be made. As later recounted by Howe, the inventor asked, "'Why don't you make a sewing machine?' 'I wish I could,' said the capitalist; "But it can't be done.'" The "capitalist" then told the inventor that, if he could invent a sewing machine, "I'll insure you an independent fortune." Although having received no formal schooling in natural philosophy or mechanics (a common trait of most American inventors of the day), Howe was impressed by this remark and he began thinking of the problems entailed in creating a sewing machine.

In 1843, he began working on the invention in earnest, hoping to become as wealthy as the capitalist had promised. By the fall of that year, he at last invented a sewing machine, although it would take a few more years of tinkering to improve its performance and to confirm its functionality. A few years later, he filed for a patent, which issued on September 10, 1846, claiming the use of an eye-pointed needle in combination with a second thread carried by shuttle to create a lockstitch. The Scientific American promptly published the patent claims on September 26, 1846, under the heading "New Inventions." Howe's three elements formed the core of the Singer Sewing Machine that would eventually sweep the United States in the 1850s.

It is difficult to understand in the abstract how a sewing machine makes a lockstitch, especially if one has never operated a sewing machine. The Wikimedia Commons has an animated gif that shows how a lockstitch is made, click here. The diagram below also details step-by-step how a lockstitch is made with an eye-pointed needle and a shuttle carrying a second thread (just click to expand):

Howe's sewing machine, of which the patent model "is acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful ever presented to the Patent Office," was a feat of engineering.

It sewed 250 stitches per minute — seven times faster than sewing by hand. Yet firms and the buying public had been disappointed too often by earlier inventors claiming to have solved the sewing machine problem; thus Howe's attempts at commercializing his invention were met with a resounding defeat by a skeptical business world and wary consumers.

They were not entirely wrongheaded in rejecting Howe's sewing machine, as it did have some faults, some of which were described in a subsequent patent issued to John Bradshaw in 1848. For instance, Howe's sewing machine used a vertical surface, which did not permit easy passage of the clothe past the curved eye-pointed needle. Also, the curved eye-pointed needle, which moved horizontally against a vertical surface, was brittle and often broke. Lastly, the mechanism for feeding the clothe through the vertical sewing machine, called a "baster plate," made it impossible to either sew in a single continuous motion or to sew curved seams. Howe's invention was pivotal in terms of his combination of three elements — an eye-pointed needle, a shuttle, and the creation of a lockstitch — but it was not yet a fully practical sewing machine. In October 1846, Howe set off for England to try to convince British tailors of the importance of his invention, and he would not return to the United States until 1849, having failed miserably in his efforts and even poorer than he was when he left.

During Howe's sojourn in England, American inventors continued to apply themselves to the problem of creating a functional sewing machine. In 1849, John Bachelder began tinkering with another sewing machine that had been patented earlier that year by Charles Morey and Joseph B. Johnson. Bachelder obtained an improvement patent on Morey and Johnson's invention, which claimed several additional elements of the successful sewing machine, including a horizontal table for holding the clothe, a vertical, reciprocating eye-pointed needle, and a more functional feeding mechanism for moving the clothe through the sewing machine. Bachelder did not manufacture his sewing machine; rather, he later sold his patent to Singer, who brought it into the Sewing Machine Combination in 1856. This patent, according to one report, "eventually became one of the most important patents to be contributed to the Sewing Machine Combination."

Later in 1849, another inventor, Sherburne C. Blodgett, received a patent on a "rotary sewing machine," which used a revolving shuttle in making the lockstitch. Unlike Howe and Bachelder, however, Blodgett joined forces with J.H. Lerow and began manufacturing the sewing machine, which soon came to be known as the "Lerow & Blodgett machine." This sewing machine was ungainly, and, even worse, prone to failure. It was a Lerow & Blodget sewing machine on which Singer would experiment in making his own inventive contributions several years later, and one of Singer's business partners, George Zeiber, complained about the low quality of the Lerow & Blodgett machine: "Of a hundred and twenty completed machines, only eight or nine worked well enough to use in the tailor's workrooms," and of those a fellow business partner "was constantly being called on to repair them."

By 1850, the combined inventive work of Howe, Bachelder, and Blodgett reached a critical mass, which prompted two more inventors to put the finishing touches on the final complete invention of a fully practical sewing machine. The penultimate inventor was Allen B. Wilson, who, according to one article, "must be awarded the highest meed of praise as an inventor, and for the ingenuity displayed in constructing and improving the sewing-machine." Wilson received a total of four patents on sewing machines, which issued between 1850 and 1854. Many of these patents were central to the innovation of sewing machines made for home use, which had to be lighter and easier to use than the industrial variants being invented in the 1840s and early 1850s.

Foreshadowing the Sewing Machine War that was right around the corner, Wilson also had the unfortunate distinction of being the first sewing machine patentee threatened with litigation for infringing another sewing machine patent. After Wilson invented a double-pointed shuttle in 1848, A.P. Kline and Edward Lee, the owners of the Bradshaw patent, threatened Wilson with a lawsuit for infringing their patent. Lacking the funds to defend himself, Wilson sold his patent rights in this invention to Kline and Lee to settle the dispute. In 1851, Wilson partnered with Nathaniel Wheeler, and the two formed the firm, Wheeler, Wilson & Company, which began manufacturing sewing machines on the basis of Wilson's three subsequent patents. It also soon entered the fray in the Sewing Machine War, and would become one of the members of the Combination in 1856.

The American inventor who at last completed the development of the sewing machine was Isaac Merritt Singer. Singer was an irascible fellow who lived a very colorful life; he was a polygamist who married at least five women over his lifetime, lived at times under false names, fathered at least eighteen children out of wedlock, and whose violent temper often terrorized his family members, business partners and professional associates. Yet Singer was also a brilliant businessman with an innate sense of mechanics and a strong financial motivation. As he liked to quip, he was interested only in "the dimes, not the invention."

It was perhaps this motivation that caused him to relent to the request of his two business partners, George B. Zieber and Orson C. Phelps, to try his hand at improving the Lerow & Blodgett machines that were constantly breaking down in Phelps's Boston workshop. On September 18, 1850, Singer, Zieber and Phelps entered into a contract, which provided that Singer would "contribute his inventive genius towards arranging a complete machine," that Zieber and Phelps would assist financially in the work, that Phelps would provide the sums necessary "to obtain a patent," and that "said patent shall be the equal property of the three partners to this agreement, each owning one-third thereof." Singer thus set to work on improving the sewing machine.

The breakthrough for Singer occurred approximately two weeks later. Singer later testified in one of the patent infringement lawsuits about his act of invention, which he claimed occurred after having "worked at it day and night, sleeping but three or four hours a day out of the twenty-four, and eating generally but once a day, as I knew I must make it for forty dollars, or not get it at all." Among the various defects in the preceding sewing machines, including the curved eye-pointed needle that was brittle and easily breakable, the Lerow & Blodgett machine's rotating shuttle also caused the thread to unravel, making the thread more prone to break as well.

Singer corrected these problems by replacing the curved needle with a straight needle that was positioned vertically rather than horizontally. He also replaced the rotating shuttle with a reciprocating shuttle. Unfortunately, at that point, the sewing machine would still not sew what Singer referred to as "tight stitches." With the assistance of Zieber, he struggled with this last-remaining issue, and, in his words, then "it flashed upon me" what he needed to do to make the sewing machine work. (This is surprisingly similar rhetoric to that used by Morse in describing his own "flash of genius" in conceiving of the telegraph.) At this point, the problem was simply one of tension in the thread as it was fed by the spool to the eye-pointed needle. After fixing this last problem, he then produced "five stitches perfectly," after which, he testified, he "took it to New York and employed Mr. Charles M. Keller to patent it."

Singer's sewing machine was invented in September 1850, and his patent ultimately issued on August 12, 1851. Singer never pretended that he invented the sewing machine ex nihilo, and his patent confirms this. His invention was an improvement on pre-existing sewing machines, such as the Lerow & Blodgett machine on which he worked in Phelps's workshop.

Specifically, Singer claimed and described a sewing machine in which the clothe rested on a horizontal table underneath an overhanging arm containing a vertical, reciprocating, straight eye-pointed needle. The eye-pointed needle was synchronized with a reciprocating shuttle carrying a second thread to make a lockstitch in the clothe, which was held in place by a presser foot as it was stitched. A pedal provided continuous motion to the sewing machine through a series of drive belts, which now made it possible for a sewing machine operator to exert seamless control over the continuous movement of the clothe. Moreover, with the synchronization of the shuttle and needle, which produced the necessary tension in the thread for continuous sewing in straight and curved lines, the invention now contained all ten elements necessary for a practical and commercially successful sewing machine. The ultimate utility of Singer's final improvements was irrefutable: A trained seamstress could sew by hand 40 stitches per minute, and whereas Howe's machine could sew up to 250 stitches per minute, Singer's machine could produce 900 stitches per minute.

In their contract governing the invention and patenting of their sewing machine, Singer, Zieber and Phelps had agreed to call it the "Jenny Lind Sewing Machine," after a famous Swedish opera singer who had taken the country by storm in the mid-nineteenth century. After the sewing machine was invented, however, they identified it simply as the "Singer Sewing Machine." They published their first newspaper advertisement on November 7, 1850, with a large headline in bold, capital letters, SEWING BY MACHINERY. Addressing their advertisement to "Journeyman Tailors, Sempstresses [sic], Employers, and all others interested in Sewing of any description," they touted that the "Singer & Phelps' Belay-stitch Sewing Machine, invented by Isaac M. Singer and manufactured by Singer & Phelps, no. 19 Harvard Place, Boston, Mass., is offered to the public as a perfect machine ...." They ballyhooed that "much labor and study has been expended upon it by the inventor," and offered a one-year warranty that the machine would run "without repairs." They further bragged in the lengthy eight-paragraph advertisement: "From 500 to 1500 stitches, according to the fabric operated upon, may be taken per minute."

On the same day as this advertisement appeared in the newspaper, the Boston Daily Times reported on the invention of the Singer Sewing Machine. The Times observed that the "machine can be worked by any woman of common intelligence ... and is in fact, the prettiest, simplest and most effective result of mechanical skill that we ever saw."

Given the difficulties with the previous sewing machines invented by Howe, Blodgett, and the many others that had come before them, such declarations were not hyperbole. The Singer Sewing Machine did indeed work as advertised.

Unfortunately for Singer, Howe had returned from England in April 1849, and he quickly discovered that the American public was swept up with a newfound interest in the labor-saving potential of sewing machines. As one historian writes: "Mechanics had read of his [Howe's] device or seen it demonstrated, and had turned their hand to producing something similar. The Lerow and Blodgett machine which had been the basis for Singer's improvements was one such piece of work." In late 1850, Singer had not heard of Howe, but the casual chain of incremental innovation that linked Howe to Singer was very real. As a result, Howe would soon unleash a torrent of litigation against Singer and others that would ultimately culminate in the Sewing Machine War in the mid-1850s.