Elias Howe: Victim and Protagonist
Elias Howe, Jr., most often credited with inventing the first practical sewing machine, was born in Spencer, MA, 1819. Permanently lamed with a hereditary condition that handicapped him throughout his short life, he worked as best he could on his father’s farm and attended school until age 16, when he apprenticed at a local textile mill. Two years later, when The Panic of 1837 hit, he lost his position and moved to nearby Lowell, where he apprenticed himself to machine shop owner Ari Davis.
Townspeople regarded Ari Davis as something of an eccentric, but acknowledged he possessed proven skills at making and repairing all kinds of precision machinery. Davis made several unsuccessful attempts at producing a sewing machine, preaching over and over to anyone who listened that such a device would make its inventor rich. Howe agreed. By now, he had children and a wife, but his health proved so fragile he sometimes found steady employment required more stamina than he could muster. His wife frequently took in sewing to help pay the family’s bills.
Realizing his ability to handle strenuous physical exertion remained forever limited, Howe turned his attention to inventing a working sewing machine sometime in 1843. His first efforts were crude and tentative, but he kept at it. He later reported that he studied his wife as she sewed, making several abortive attempts to duplicate her movements mechanically. Each effort failed. Howe gradually realized all such efforts were doomed to failure. He decided to switch tactics, reasoning that, while a machine could not mimic hand sewing, it just might accomplish the sought-after results in some other way.