Hand sewing is an art form that is over 20,000 years old. The first sewing needles were made of bones or animal horns and the first thread was made of animal sinew. Iron needles were invented in the 14th century. The first eyed needles appeared in the 15th century. The story really starts in 1755 in London when a German immigrant, Charles Wiesenthal, took out a patent for a needle to be used for mechanical sewing. There was no mention of a machine to go with it, and another 34 years were to pass before Englishman Thomas Saint invented what is generally considered to be the first real sewing machine.
Charles Wiesenthal first patent in 1758
John Adams Doge 1818
The English, Thomas Saint was issued the first patent for a complete machine in 1790. The patent describes an awl that punched a hole in leather and passed a needle through the hole. A later reproduction of Saint's invention based on his patent drawings did not work. In 1818, the first American sewing machine was invented by John Adams Doge and John Knowles. Their machine failed to sew any useful amount of fabric before malfunctioning.
The first functional sewing machine was invented by the French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, in 1830. Thimonnier's machine used only one thread and a hooked needle that made the same chain stitch used with embroidery. The inventor was almost killed by an enraged group of French tailors who burnt down his garment factory because they feared unemployment as a result of his new invention.
In 1834, Walter Hunt built America's first (somewhat) successful sewing machine. He later lost interest in patenting because he believed his invention would cause unemployment. Hunt never patented and in 1846, the first American patent was issued to Elias Howe for "a process that used thread from two different sources.“ For the next nine years Elias Howe struggled, first to enlist interest in his machine, then to protect his patent from imitators. His lockstitch mechanism was adopted by others who were developing innovations of their own.
Sewing machines did not go into mass production until the 1850's, when Isaac Singer built the first commercially successful machine. Singer built the first sewing machine where the needle moved up and down rather than the side-to-side and the needle was powered by a foot treadle. Previous machines were all hand-cranked. However, Isaac Singer's machine used the same lockstitch that Howe had patented. Elias Howe sued Isaac Singer for patent infringement and won in 1854. Walter Hunt's sewing machine also used a lockstitch with two spools of thread and an eye-pointed needle; however, the courts upheld Howe's patent since Hunt had abandoned his patent.
If Hunt had patented his invention, Elias Howe would have lost his case and Isaac Singer would have won. Since he lost, Isaac Singer had to pay Elias Howe patent royalties. As a side note: In 1844, Englishmen John Fisher received a patent for a lace making machine that was identical enough to the machines made by Howe and Singer that if Fisher's patent had not been lost in the patent office, John Fisher would also have been part of the patent battle.
After successfully defending his right to a share in the profits of his invention, Elias Howe saw his annual income jump from three hundred to more than two hundred thousand dollars a year. Between 1854 and 1867, Howe earned close to two million dollars from his invention. During the Civil War, he donated a portion of his wealth to equip an infantry regiment for the Union Army and served in the regiment as a private.
Elias Howe's design was copied by Isaac Singer and others, leading to extensive patent litigation. However, a court battle in the 1850s conclusively gave Elias Howe the patent rights to the eye pointed needle.
The court case was brought by Elias Howe against Isaac Merritt Singer, the largest manufacturer of sewing machines for patent...
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