The history of the sewing machine
Although the sewing machine of today is largely an American innovation, stemming from inventions made between 1845 and 1854, the prototype was invented by an Englishman. Thomas Saint obtained a patent as a machine for stitching leather as early as 1790. However, his invention remained undeveloped and forgotten for 84 years, incidentally placing most of the later significant inventions in breach of Saint’s patent.
A machine which had rather more influence was devised by a poor French tailor named Thimonnier. His invention brought envy and suspicion in the wake of its own success, and within a year of its first commercial use, a Parisian mob of tailors and seamstresses destroyed his workshop lest the new machines should ultimately destroy their jobs.
The centre of inventive activity then moved to New York, where Walter Hunt had invented a lockstitch machine in 1832. This was the first machine to use 2 threads and a shuttle. However, Hunt’s invention was never patented and received no commercial development.
Elias Howe, another American, then invented his own machine in 1846, apparently without the knowledge of Hunt’s work. Howe was also unfortunate, in as much as he was dogged by poverty, bad luck and a dishonest business associate in London. Others produced machines in breach of Howe’s patents and the resulting disputes were only settled in the courts. One of Howe’s most formidable opponents being Isaac M. Singer, whose first machine was produced in 1851.
Singer introduced several improvements in machine design, including the first pivoted treadle. Elias Howe and Singer then simultaneously discovered that there was little to be gained by trying to beat each other in the American civil courts, and instead formed a consortium, which soon proved to be the most profitable solution to the problem of patents.
The sewing machine was, after the clock, the first complex mechanism to be used in the home. Naturally, with no mechanic standing by, it had to be robust and reliable. To meet the required high standards of manufacture the moving parts of most machines were made of hardened steel, ground to fit, and to produce these parts economically the first universal grinding machine was patented in 1876. Several other machine tools were developed to facilitate the mass production of sewing machines, consequently making the sewing machine a mother-of-invention for the machine tool industry, as well as the clothing trade which could now produce cheap new clothing for the majority of the population.
There was one further major effect stemming from the sewing machine and the public demand to own one. Many prospective owners could ill afford the purchase price of around $100 dollars, so Singer’s partner, Edward Clark devised his hire purchase scheme to boost trade. Here, on this side of the Atlantic, we are only just beginning to feel the full effect of that innovation as it penetrates every sector of our lives.