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The Sewing Machine : A Brief History

Arguments persist to this day over who invented the sewing machine. By default, Elias Howe usually receives the honour, more for his 1844 patents than for the machine he designed. But even here, there’s confusion. Englishman John Fisher may have beaten Howe to the patent office only to lose out because someone misfiled his papers.

Nonetheless, Elias Howe did hold the crucial sewing machine patents when Isaac Merritt Singer, Wheeler, Wilson and Grover Baker, soon to become the three biggest companies, began manufacturing their machines … a fact that led to what newspapers of the day correctly labelled The Sewing Machine Wars. And ironically, the blustering, cantankerous, hot-headed Isaac Singer could have owned Howe’s patents for a pittance–$2,000. A destitute Howe approached Singer in early 1851 with an offer to sell. Instead of buying, Singer, who at the time was strapped for money himself, flew into rage and threatened to toss his rival down a flight of stairs. Howe returned in the summer of 1852, this time with an offer to license his patents to Singer. Singer now had money and a new partner, attorney Edmond Clark (Clark subsequently constructed the Dakota Building in New York City, where singer/composer John Lennon was shot to death by Mark Chapman over a century later on December, 8, 1981). Clark doubted Howe had the finances or the fortitude to take his battle to court, and Clark questioned the validity of Howe’s patents. Singer and his lawyer-partner messed up, grandly … and thereby, especially to Singer’s later consternation, made Elias Howe a fabulously rich man.

The rhubarb over who invented the sewing machine stretches back to the mid-1700s, and more or less follows a now recognized path.