This Day in History – September 10th, 1846

Elias Howe

In 1837, Elias Howe moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to look for work, and the following year began an apprenticeship in the shop of Ari Davis, a master mechanic in Cambridge who specialized in the manufacture and repair of chronometers and other precision instruments. While in the employ of Davis, Howe seized upon the idea of the sewing machine and patented his design on this day in 1846.

Howe is often considered to be the inventor of the sewing machine, but the idea dates back as early as 1790, to which several inventors patented their designs, and even produced working machines. Howe get the credit, however, for greatly refining the design and on September 10, 1846, he was awarded the first United States patent (U.S. Patent 4,750) for a sewing machine using a lockstitch design. His machine contained the three essential features common to most modern machines: a needle with the eye at the point, a shuttle operating beneath the cloth to form the lock stitch, and an automatic feed.

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Even though he had secured his patent, Howe had considerable difficulty finding investors in the United States to finance production of his invention, so his elder brother Amasa Bemis Howe traveled to England in October 1846 to seek financing. Amasa was able to sell his first machine for £250 to William Thomas of Cheapside, London, who owned a factory for the manufacture of corsets, umbrellas and valises. Elias and his family joined Amasa in London in 1848, but after business disputes with Thomas and failing health of his wife, Howe returned nearly penniless to the United States.

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Despite his efforts to sell his machine, other entrepreneurs began manufacturing sewing machines. Howe was forced to defend his patent in a court case that lasted from 1849 to 1854 because he found that Isaac Singer with cooperation from Walter Hunt had perfected a facsimile of his machine and was selling it with the same lockstitch that Howe had invented and patented. He won the dispute and earned considerable royalties from Singer and others for sales of his invention.

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