Elias Howe and the Lockstitch Sewing Machine

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Elias Howe grew up near the textile mills of Massachusetts, and it was to textiles that he dedicated his life's work. His breakthroughs allowed for the modern sewing machine and demonstrate the power of subconscious thought. His is also an example of the power of the U.S. patent system. Nearly penniless, Howe was able to receive substantial royalties on the sale of Singer machines, and died a multi-millionaire.

Elias Howe was born on July 9, 1819 in Spencer, Massachusetts. This placed him of age in the midst of a textile boom in New England. For a time he worked in Lowell and was fascinated by the thought of improving and automating much of the sewing process. He set to work on perfecting the lockstitch sewing machine to achieve this purpose.

Howe's story exemplifies the breakthroughs that can come via dreams and subconscious thoughts. He had been working a lot on his design, but was consistently frustrated in his ultimate effort. In a dream, the idea finally came to him to change the position of the eye of the needle on the machine. For a traditional needle has the eye near the back, but on a sewing machine things work much better with the eye near the point. The inspiration for changing this (supposedly) came to Howe in a dream.

Various disputed versions of the dream exist, related and sometimes denied by Howe, his family, and close acquaintances. The basic idea is the same in all of them. Howe is being chased or held prisoner by a foreign tribe, and put under much duress. He is threatened with death. Spears are pointed in his direction, but these spears have a hole near the tip. When Howe wakes up before dawn, he immediately has the flash of inspiration about which needle to use on his machine, which helps him complete the rest of the design.

Howe patented his machine on September 10, 1846. The initial version was still quite basic, and Howe was not a gifted salesmen. The patent would prove to be his saving grace. Copies and improvements of the machine proliferated through the textile industry. Isaac Singer, most famously, founded a company dedicated to the machine, and became a renowned and wealthy businessman. From this came a great instance of the patent dispute. Howe struck back and demanded his share of the profits from other sewing machine manufacturers. He indeed secured the right to royalties from his competitors and became a wealthy man by the time his patent expired.

Those involved with the new sewing machines became rich for good reason -- the productivity of textile mills and even home sewing grew dramatically. Manufactured clothing as we know it today would hardly have been possible otherwise. The great department store triumphs of the late 19th century and the democratization of fashion to the middle class also have much to owe to the sewing machine. Thus, Elias Howe's invention was a key milestone in the development of the United States.

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