Scientific American/Reminiscences of Sewing Machine Inventors

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We have often thought that reminiscences touching the mental operations and the rights and wrongs of inventors, if they could be brought under the graphic pen of a Charles Dickens, would form a most instructive and amusing volume. From an experience of more than thirteen years with the order of persons usually denominated "geniuses," many facts of an interesting nature suggest themselves to our minds. In the present instance, we venture to say a few words bearing only upon one class.

Elias Howe, Jr., of Cambridge, Mass., obtained a patent for the first practically useful sewing machine in 1846. For several years it was a source of annoyance and expense to him, with little or no pecuniary profit. Since that time many improvements have been patented, and the manufacturing of sewing machines is now one of the most extensive businesses in the United States, and thousands are sold annually. Elias Howe, Jr., once a poor inventor, with few friends, now receives, from the most prominent makers of sewing machines, a tribute that will make him, before the first term of his patent expires (1860), one of the wealthiest men in this country. We do not speak from any positive knowledge of the facts, but his present annual income cannot be calculated at less than $100,000; certain it is, that, in the course of a single month, he must have received from one establishment no less than $6,000, judging from the number of machines sold by that concern. On almost any pleasant day a portly man with flowing hair, white cravat, and broad brimmed Kossuth hat, may be seen on Broadway, dashing along behind a splendid pair of fancy horses, fit for the stud of an emperor, and with all the ease and independence of a millionaire. That man is Elias Howe, Jr., once the poor and humble inventor. We rejoice in the good fortune of our old friend, and can only say to him that he is entitled to all that he has received.

In the year 1849, there came into our office a spare-looking humble man, hailing from Pittsfield, Mass. After taking a cursory survey of the modest premises which we then tenanted, and feeling a degree of security that he could trust to our integrity and honor, he carefully untied a handkerchief, and brought out two models -- one a sewing machine, the other a rotary steam engine. He was a poor inventor, and had not the means to take patents for both of his daring projects; and upon our advice he gave us an order to proceed to secure his right on the sewing machine, which we accordingly did. Subsequently his Letters Patent issued, and he unsuspectingly entrusted his affairs in the hands of unprincipled men, and he was cheated. Nothing daunted, he set his prolific genius at work, and as the result, A.B. Wilson soon produced an almost perfect sewing machine, which, under the good business management of Nathaniel Wheeler (we wish every inventor could secure such an efficient and honest cooperator) is now a triumph. Should any of our readers chance to visit the neat village of Watertown, Conn., they will find that the occupant of one of its most beautiful mansions is no less a personage than our once poor client with his cotton handkerchief full of inventions.

In the same year (1849), a young machinist, with a small capital but an honorable ambition, opened a small shop at No. 83 Gold street, within a stone's throw of our office. With a considerable stock of ingenuity, and the advantage of ready hands, he applied himself to render the sewing machine available to various arts, and did much toward this result; but, possibly acting under some prejudice that patents were humbugs, and inventors ditto, he did not secure his rights, as he should have done; and not until he saw his improvements subsequently taken advantage of by others, did he awake to the value and importance of securing his improvements to himself. He let the "liquid chance go by;" as it is only within twelve or eighteen months that A. Bartholf (who is now an extensive manufacturer of sewing machines at No. 489 Broadway) has placed himself in a position to reap a suitable reward for his genius and industry. If he had been anything else than a most persevering and industrious man, he would have been stranded high and dry by the other energetic pioneers in the race.

Had we time and space enough to enter upon this subject in a more extended detail, we could furnish interesting items in the life of Isaac M. Singer, a veteran inventor and manufacturer of sewing machines; also of Grover & Baker, and others engaged in the same branch of manufacturing. Enough has been said to show what has been accomplished, in less than ten years, in the improvement of sewing machines. The same remarks will apply to other branches in which inventive talent has been employed and richly remunerated. During this time we have not been mere idle lookers-on. We have had a professional hand in this business, beginning as far back as the time when Howe (through the aid of a Mr. Thomas, who was then an extensive corset maker in London) undertook to introduce his first humble sewing machine into England. The original drawings in this case were made by our Chief Examiner; and since that time, hundreds of applications for patents on sewing machines have passed through the Scientific American Patent Agency.