Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Elias Howe, Jr

Difference of opinion there may be as to the abstract question, who first conceived the principle involved in sewing by machinery, or in respect to who first constructed a machine that would fulfill that idea; but so far as great results are concerned the world must be considered as indebted to Elias Howe, Jr., a New England mechanic, born and reared in obscurity, and at an early age thrown upon his own resources. He was born at Spencer, Massachusetts, July 9th, 1819. His father was a farmer and miller, but at sixteen he left home, engaging in a cotton mill. Space will not permit us to follow him through all the details of his varied experience during his early years. It will be sufficient to say that he lived in Boston in his twentieth year, where he was working in a machine-shop. He was a good workman, having learned his trade at Harvard by the side of his cousin, Nathaniel Banks, who has since greatly distinguished himself as a general in the United States army and speaker of the House of Representatives.

He was married soon after, and when twenty-two or three, his health failing, he found himself surrounded by a family, and poverty staring him in the face. The idea suggested itself to Howe in the following manner, as described by Parton in the Atlantic Monthly: “In the year 1839 two men in Boston, one a mechanic, the other a capitalist, were striving to produce a knitting-machine, which proved to be a task beyond their strength. When the inventor was at his wit’s end, his capitalist brought the machine to the shop of Ari Davis, to see if that eccentric genius could suggest the solution of the difficulty, and make the machine work. The shop, resolving itself into a committee of the whole, gathered about the knitting-machine and its proprietor, and were listening to an explanation of its principles, when Davis, in his wild, extravagant way, broke in with the question: ‘What are you bothering yourself with a knitting-machine for? Why don’t you make a sewing-machine?’ ‘I wish I could,’ said the capitalist, ‘but it can’t be done,’ ‘Oh, yes, it can,’ said Davis. ‘I can make a sewing-machine myself.’ ‘Well,’ said the other; ‘you do it, Davis, and I’ll insure you an independent fortune.’ There the conversation dropped, and was never resumed. The boastful remark of the master of the shop was considered one of his sallies of affected extravagance, as it really was, and the response of the capitalist to it was uttered without a thought of producing an effect. Nor did it produce any effect upon the person to whom it was addressed, as Davis never attempted to construct a sewing-machine.

“Among the workmen who stood by and listened to this conversation was a young man from the country, a new hand named Elias Howe, then twenty years old. The person whom we have named capitalist, a well-dressed and fine looking man, somewhat consequential in his manners, was an imposing figure in the eyes of this youth, new to city ways, and he was much impressed with the emphatic assurance that a fortune was in store for the man who would invent a sewing-machine. He was the more struck with it because he had already amused himself with inventing some slight improvements, and recently he had caught from Davis the habit of meditating new devices. The spirit of invention, as all mechanics know, is exceedingly contagious. One man in a shop who invents something that proves successful will give the mania to half his companions, and the very apprentices will be tinkering over a device after their day’s work is done.”

Thus it was that the idea of a sewing-machine first entered Howe’s mind. The following is the touching story of Howe’s early struggle and final triumph as told by himself: “I commenced the invention of my sewing-machine as early as 1841, when I was twenty-two years of age. Being then dependent on my daily labor for the support of myself and my family I could not devote my attention to the subject during the working hours of the day, but I thought on it when I could, day and night. It grew on until 1844; I felt impelled to yield my whole time to it. During this period I worked on my invention mentally as much as I could, having only the aid of needles and such other small devices as I could carry in my pockets, and use at irregular intervals of daily labor at my trade. I was poor, but with promises of aid from a friend, I thereafter devoted myself exclusively to the construction and practical completion of my machine. I worked alone in an upper room in my friend’s house, and finished my first machine by the middle of May, 1845.

“This was a period of intense and persistent application, of all the powers I possessed, to the practical embodiment of my mechanical ideas into a successful sewing-machine. I soon tested the practical success of my first machine by sewing with it all the principal seams in two suits of clothes, one for myself, and one for my friend. Our clothes were as well made as any made by hand-sewing. I still have my first machine; and it will now sew as good a seam as any sewing-machine known to me. My first machine was described in the specification of my patent, and I then made a second machine, to be deposited in the patent office as a model.”

“I then conveyed one-half of my invention and patent to my friend, for five hundred dollars; in fact, though a much larger sum (ten thousand dollars) was named in the deed at his suggestion. My patent was issued on the 10th of September, 1846. I made a third machine, which I tried to get into use on terms satisfactory to myself and friend. For this purpose I endeavored to attract notice to it by working with it in tailor shops, and exhibited it to all who desired to become acquainted with it. After my patent was obtained, my friend declined to aid me further. I then owed him about two thousand dollars, and I was also in debt to my father, to whom I conveyed the remaining half of my patent for two thousand dollars. Having parted with my whole title, and having no means for manufacturing machines, I was much embarrassed, and did not know what to do.”

“My brother, Amasa B. Howe, suggested that my invention might succeed in England, when, if patented, it would be wholly under my control; and on my behalf, with means borrowed of my father, my brother took my third machine to England, to do the best he could with it. He succeeded in selling my machine and invention for two hundred pounds in cash, and a verbal agreement that the purchaser should patent my invention in Great Britain, in his own name; and if it should prove successful, to pay me three pounds royalty on each machine he made or sold under the patent. He also agreed to employ me in adapting my machine to his own kind of work at three pounds a week wages.”

“The purchaser obtained a patent for my machine in England, and I went to London to enter his employment. I then made several machines with various modifications and improvements, to suit his peculiar kind of work, and they were put to immediate use; but afterwards we ceased to be friendly, and I was discharged from his employment. In the meantime my wife and three children had joined me in London. I had also, at the suggestion of another person, endorsed a hundred pound note, on which I was afterwards sued and arrested; but I was finally released on taking the ‘poor debtor’s oath.’ By small loans from fellow mechanics, and by pawning a few articles, I managed to live with my family in London, until, from friendly representations from some American acquaintances, the captain of an American packet was induced to take my wife and children home to the United States on credit. I was then alone, and extremely poor, in a foreign land.”

“My invention was patented, and in successful use in England, but without any profit to me, and wholly out of my control. In the spring of 1849 I was indebted to a Scottish mechanic for a steerage passage, and I returned to the United States, poorer, if possible, than when I left. On my return I found my wife and children very destitute; all other personal effects, save what they had on, being still detained to secure payment for their passage home. My wife was sick, and died within ten days after my arrival. During my absence in England a considerable number of sewing-machines had been made, and put in operation in different parts of the United States; some of these by the procurement of the friend to whom I had sold half of my American patent but most of them infringements on my patent.”

“Having obtained from my father, in the summer of 1849, an agreement to re-convey to me his half of my patent; I tried to induce the friend who held the other half to join me in prosecuting our rights against infringers, but he declined to do so. After failing to make any satisfactory settlement with the infringers, who well knew my poverty and embarrassments, I filed a bill in equity against one of such persons, and made my friend a party defendant also, in order to bring him into court as co-owner of my machine. After this he joined me in a suit at law against another infringer. In this case the validity of my patent was fully established by a verdict and judgment at law. After several transfers of the half share sold my friend, I purchased it back, about five years ago, and I am now sole owner of the American patent.”

Thus did Howe modestly tell the story of his terrible trials and suffering. After long litigation Mr. Howe’s claim to have been the original inventor was legally and irreversibly established, the judge deciding, “that there was no evidence which left a shadow of doubt that for all the benefit conferred upon the public by the introduction of the sewing-machine the public are indebted to Mr. Howe.” Therefore to him all inventors or improvers had to pay a royalty on each machine they made. From being a poor man, living in a garret, Howe became one of the most noted millionaires in America.

Doubtless many of our readers would be interested in the principles involved in Mr. Howe’s machine; which seem to be essential in all two-threaded machines. We find that two threads are employed, one of which is carried through the cloth by means of a curved pointed needle; the needle used has the eye that is to receive the thread, about an eighth of an inch from the pointed end. When the thread is carried through the cloth, which may be done to the distance of about three-fourths of an inch the thread will be stretched above the curved needle, something like a bowstring, leaving a small open space between the two. A small shuttle, carrying a bobbin, filled with thread, is then made to pass entirely through this open space, between the needle and the thread which it carries; and when the shuttle is returned the thread which was carried in by the needle is surrounded by that received from the shuttle; as the needle is drawn out, it forces that which was received from the shuttle into the body of the cloth giving the seam formed the same appearance on each side of the cloth.

Thus, according to this arrangement, a stitch is made at every back and forth movement of the shuttle. The two thicknesses of cloth that are to be sewed, are held upon pointed wires which project out from a metallic plate, like the teeth of a comb, but at a considerable distance from each other, these pointed wires sustaining the cloth, and answering the purpose of ordinary basting. The metallic plate, from which these wires project, has numerous holes through it, which answer the purpose of rack teeth in enabling the plate to move forward, by means of a pinion, as the stitches are taken. The distance to which the plate is moved, and, consequently, the length of the stitches may be regulated at pleasure.

He opened a manufactory for his machines where he could carry on the business in a small way. From this small beginning his business grew until, with the royalties he received, his income reached $200,000 annually. Notwithstanding his wealth, he enlisted in the war as a private, and his principles and sympathy were displayed at one time when, seeing the men needy, the government having been unable to pay promptly, he himself advanced enough money to pay the entire regiment. In the month of October, 1867, at the early age of forty-eight he died.

But he had lived long enough to see his machine adopted and appreciated as one of the greatest labor-saving devices in the world. It is estimated that to-day the sewing-machine saves annually the enormous sum of $500,000,000. It has been truly said that had it not been for the sewing-machine it would have been impossible to have clothed and kept clothed the vast armies employed on both sides during the late war. Great, indeed, is a world’s benefactor; such is Elias Howe.