Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Isaac M. Singer

The greatest competitor of Mr. Howe was I. M. Singer. In 1850 there appeared in a shop in Boston, a man who exhibited a carving machine as his invention.

Mr. Parton, in the Atlantic Monthly, said: “Singer was a poor, baffled adventurer. He had been an actor and a manager of a theatre, and had tried his hand at various enterprises, none of which had been successful.” The proprietor of the shop, who had some sewing-machines there on exhibition, speaking of them, said: “These machines are an excellent invention, but have some serious defects. Now if you could make the desired improvement, there would be more money in it than in making these carving machines.” This seemed to gently impress Singer, and the friend advancing $40, he at once began work. According to Singer’s testimony in the Howe vs. Singer suits, the story of this wonderful man runs something like this:

“I worked day and night, sleeping but three or four hours out of the twenty-four, and eating generally but once a day, as I knew I must get a machine made for forty dollars or not get it at all. The machine was completed the night of the eleventh day from the day it was commenced. About nine o’clock that evening we got the parts of the machine together, and commenced trying it. The first attempt to sew was unsuccessful, and the workmen, who were tired out with almost unremitting work, left me, one by one, intimating that it was a failure. I continued trying the machine, with Zieber, who furnished the forty dollars, to hold the lamp for me; but in the nervous condition to which I had been reduced, by incessant work and anxiety, was unsuccessful in getting the machine to sew light stitches.

“About midnight I started with Zieber to the hotel, where I boarded. Upon the way we sat down on a pile of boards, and Zieber asked me if I had not noticed that the loose loops of thread on the upper side of the cloth came from the needle? It then flashed upon me that I had forgotten to adjust the tension upon the needle thread. Zieber and I went back to the shop. I adjusted the tension, tried the machine, and sewed five stitches perfectly, when the thread broke. The perfection of those stitches satisfied me that the machine was a success, and I stopped work, went to the hotel, and had a sound sleep. By three o’clock the next day I had the machine finished, and started with it to New York, where I employed Mr. Charles M. Keller to get out a patent for it.”

The trial resulted in favor of Howe, but of the two men Singer was in every way the superior in business capacity. In fact; there never has been a sewing-machine manufacturer that could compare with I. M. Singer. “Great and manifold were the difficulties which arose in his path, but one by one he overcame them all. He advertised, he traveled, he sent out agents, he procured the insertion of articles in newspapers, he exhibited the machines at fairs in town or country. Several times he was on the point of failure, but in the nick of time something always happened to save him, and year after year he advanced toward an assured success.

“We well remember his early efforts, when he only had the back part of a small store on Broadway, and a little shop over a railroad depot; and we remember also the general incredulity with regard to the value of the machine with which his name was identified. Even after hearing him explain it at great length, we were very far from expecting to see him one day riding to the Central Park in a French diligence, drawn by five horses paid for by the sewing-machine. Still less did we anticipate that within twelve years the Singer company would be selling a thousand sewing-machines a week, at a profit of a thousand dollars a day. He was the true pioneer of the mere business of selling machines, and made it easier for all his subsequent competitors.”

The peculiarity of the Singer machine is the chain stitch or single thread device, but with the employment of an eye-pointed needle, and other appliances, so as to make it admirably adopted for the general purposes of sewing. At Mr. Singer’s death it was found that his estate amounted to about $19,000,000.