If you’re wondering who invented the sewing machine in 1846, that honor goes to Elias Howe.
Before the invention of the sewing machine, everything had to be created manually. Today’s seamstresses have it much easier when it comes to making their own clothes, bags, and decorative items.
Sewing machines sell by the millions every year, and with good reason. You can find the one that is right for you because sewing machines now come in all price ranges and with all types of features and benefits.
How Did it Get Started?
In 1846, Elias Howe received the first patent for his invention of the sewing machine. Years earlier, however, a French tailor by the name of Barthelemy Thimmonier made a mechanical version of a hand sewing device that was able to execute a perfect chain stitch. He received a contract to make uniforms for the French army, but the other tailors in the area destroyed his factory so he never got to do the job. This was in the year 1830.
In the early 1830s, an American named Walter Hunt came up with the idea of a sewing machine that did backstitches, but since he was afraid of putting tailors out of business, he decided not to patent it. Ironically, Hunt did go on to invent other important things, including the safety pin, a knife sharpener, a fire engine gong, and a coal-burning stove, among others.
Before Elias Howe came on the scene, other inventors tried their hands at creating some type of machine that allowed people to sew things without doing so by hand, but when Howe patented his machine in 1846, it consisted of a lot of refinements and was by far the most advanced sewing machine invented up to that point. Some of its many advantages and features included:
- A shuttle located under the cloth to form the lock stitch
- A sewing needle that had an eye at the point
- A feed that was automatic
These advances, quite naturally, made his sewing machine the most high-tech device of its time, but unfortunately, he had a lot of trouble getting any investors in the United States. He and his brother, Amasa Bemis Howe, then traveled to England to try and get financing, and they sold their first machine to a man named William Thomas, who owned a factory that made items such as corsets and umbrellas. This first sewing machine was sold to Thomas for a price of £250.
Unfortunately, Howe’s efforts produced no real results, and he returned to the United States in 1849 penniless. At around this time, Howe got into a dispute with both Isaac Singer and Walter Hunt, who had invented facsimiles of the machine Howe had had an idea for, and they even went to court to settle the dispute. In the end, Howe won and even gained royalties from the sales of machines that Singer and others were involved in, allowing him to earn a considerable amount of money.
How Did Howe Come up with His Idea?
So, if you’re curious about how Howe came up with his idea for a sewing machine, he got the idea when he was working for a precision machinist in Boston by the name of Ari Davis. Davis mentioned to Howe that if someone would come up with a way for people to sew using a mechanical device that they could make a lot of money doing it. Howe spent a total of eight years working on the device in his spare time, and he concentrated on specific techniques that users could rely on when they utilized the machine.
After Elias Howe won his settlement against Singer and other manufacturers, the men eventually worked together to market the sewing machine. Howe was a great inventor but a so-so businessman, but after their efforts were pooled together, the sewing machine was heavily marketed and became a huge success. Oddly, Howe’s patent for the sewing machine ended in 1867, the same year he himself died.
What About Before Howe?
Although Howe is credited as getting the first American patent for the sewing machine in 1846, other inventors came up with items that led up to the development of the sewing machine. These include:
- Charles Weisenthal from London, who took out a patent for a specialized needle in 1755. It was made to be used for industrial sewing purposes, but there is no record of Weisenthal ever creating a machine to go along with the needle.
- Englishman Thomas Saint, who came up with the idea of an awl punching a hole in leather and a needle and thread coming through the hole, but most people believe that he only received the patent and never came up with a prototype. This took place in 1790.
- Balthasar Krems from Germany, who developed a machine for sewing caps in 1810. He never took out a patent, however, so the idea never spread.
- Josef Madersperger from Austria, who created a series of designs in the early 1800s and finally received a patent in the year 1814. He worked on the designs until at least 1839 and even got grants from his government, but nothing ever came out of his ideas.
- Thomas Stone and James Henderson of France, who each received patents for machines that emulated the sewing process, which was in 1804.
- The same year, a man named Scott John Duncan received a patent for a type of embroidery sewing machine, but just like Stone and Henderson, no one knows for sure what happened after these patents were received.
- In 1818, Americans John Adams Doge and John Knowles produced a device that could sew material together, but which only lasted a short period of time before having to be reloaded and reused.
- Englishman John Fisher, who developed a machine in 1844 that created lace. This machine was essentially an early type of sewing machine.
It is quite clear that, without these dozens of inventions, the sewing machine as we know it today would not exist. One of the most interesting aspects of this invention is that even though it was touted as a way for businesses to make more money because they could produce more products in a shorter period of time, the real beneficiaries were women, who could now use machines instead of sewing everything by hand like they did before.
During this timeframe, women made everything they owned, including dresses, blouses, coats and sweaters, underwear, and in fact, everything they wore both for everyday and dress-up use. From workwear to church clothing, they made everything by hand using a needle and thread, so the invention of the sewing machine saved them precious time and even money. There is little wonder that the sewing machine has been continuously improved to this day and is more valuable than it’s ever been.
Video: The Invention of the Sewing Machine
A Timeline: Different Sewing Machines
In case you’re wondering about the timeline of sewing machine inventions, below is a brief recap:
- 1755: first possible patent
- 1790: patent for a complete sewing machine
- 1804: patent for a sewing machine that emulated hand-sewing
- 1810: automatic machine for the purpose of sewing caps
- 1814: several sewing machines that were unsuccessful
- 1818: first sewing machine, but it wasn’t successful or practical
- 1830: first successful and smooth-operating sewing machine
- 1834: first successful sewing machine in the United States
- 1846: the best sewing machine up to that point in the United States
- 1853: sales of sewing machines in the United States start to increase significantly
- 1857: first sewing machine offering single-thread and cross-stitch capacity
- 1860: sewing machines start to be widely produced
- 1873: first sewing machine that offered a zigzag stitch
- 1889: first sewing machine designed for home use
- 1905: sewing machines that are electrically powered become popular
As you can see, in the beginning, sewing machines were made for industrial and commercial use only, and it wasn’t until 1889 that sewing machines became a fixture in American homes. Today, sewing machines range from miniature machines designed specifically for kids to large industrial sewing and embroidery machines that create and mass-produce everything from clothing to purses and thousands of other products.
Changing the World
There’s no doubt that sewing machines changed not only people’s lives, but also the world. When sewing had to be done by hand, mass production wasn’t a possibility, which meant that most people had very few clothes in their possession. Sewing machines changed all that. Not only could you make clothes faster, but you could make more clothing as well, changing people’s lives in numerous ways for the better.
The sewing machine also helped various industries as well, including not just the textile industry, but also the metal industry, furniture industry, and even the cotton industry, to name a few. Asking yourself who invented the sewing machine provides you with some interesting answers because numerous people were involved with the invention of the sewing machines we are familiar with today, yet millions of people have benefitted from this invention that changed the world in ways we never thought possible when the machine was first manufactured.