Have you ever wondered who invented the humble sewing machine? Being a professional sewer I thought I’d do a little research and share my findings.
The discovery that this everyday object emerged from very complicated origins was surprising.
The Timeline of the Sewing Machine
There are many claims to its original invention so I’ve tried to glean the main contributors from the rest of the pack. I’ve listed the most prominent dates and names below:
1755 – Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal invented the first known mechanical device for sewing. He was awarded a British patent for his invention.
1790 – Thomas Saint is credited with the invention the first sewing machine design using a basic chain stitch. Unfortunately, he did not market or advertise his invention.
1804 – a sewing machine was built by the Englishmen, Thomas Stone and James Henderson, also in this year, a machine for embroidery was constructed by John Duncan in Scotland. Sadly, neither of these machines were successful.
1807 – Austrian tailor, Josef Madersperger began developing his first sewing machine. He presented his working machine in 1814.
1829 – Barthelemy Thimonnier, a French tailor invented the first practical and widely used sewing machine.
1832 – Walter Hunt invented the first American lockstitch machine. He eventually patented it in 1854.
1841 – British partners, Newton and Archibald, introduced the eye-pointed needle and the use of two pressing surfaces to keep the pieces of fabric in position.
1842 – John Greenough patented the first sewing machine in the United States.
1844 – John Fisher managed to combine all the elements of the previous inventions into one recognisable machine. His original patent was lost in the patent office meaning that he had to watch his contemporaries earn their fortunes instead of him.
1845 – Elias Howe created his machine in Massachusetts. After trying to attract interest in his machine in England he returned to America. He discovered that a number of people, including Isaac Merritt Singer, had been infringing his patent. He took the case to court and won the right to claim royalties from the other manufacturers, including Singer.
1851 – Isaac Singer eventually created an improved version of the sewing machines of the time and as a result he was granted an American patent in 1851.
Throughout the rest of the decade so many patents were applied for it became known as the Sewing Machine War.
1856 – Isaac Singer, Elias Howe, Nathaniel Wheeler, Allen B.Wilson, Grover and Baker pooled their patents meaning that all other manufacturers had to purchase licenses and pay $15 per machine. They called themselves the Sewing Machine Combination. This lasted until the last patent expired in 1877.
1874 – William Newton Wilson found Saints’ drawings, made adjustments to the looper and built a working machine. This machine is currently owned by the London Science Museum.
People kept trying to improve on existing designs. Tweaking the stitching method, making the appearance of the machines more elaborate and adapting them to use electricity when the time came.
The lesson to learn from this story is that you don’t need to keep re-inventing the wheel. Although Charles Frederick Wiesenthal thought of designing a mechanical way to sew, that did not preclude others from exploring the idea.
What isn’t acceptable is simply copying someone else’s intellectual property, as Isaac Singer found to his cost.
As creative people we are continually re-imagining and building upon previous ideas and practices. We develop them, add our own twist and make them unique. That’s what makes our beautiful world go round.
Until next time…