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Elias Howe was born on July 9, 1819, in Spencer, Massachusetts. Howe worked from an early age and moved from Spencer to Boston in 1837 to take a job as a machinist. Howe, who always was fragile in health, became ill and could no longer work. While watching his wife sew clothing to pay for the family’s mounting bills, Howe began formulating plans to create a mechanical sewing machine that used a lockstitch method to sew. The lockstitch method took thread from two sources: a needle with its eye at the point would push through the cloth creating a loop, then a shuttle would slip through the loop, creating a tight lock stitch. In 1846, Howe received a patent from the US government for his invention. His sewing machine could make 250 stitches per minute—far more than even five seamstresses could produce combined.
A Long Road to Prosperity
Despite this revolutionary breakthrough, Howe floundered in attempts to capitalize from his invention. His original model was far too expensive for the average American household, and he was swindled by various interests while trying to market his invention in England. Virtually broke, Howe and his family were forced to return to America, only to see the new sewing machine industry flourishing. In 1854, he sued Isaac Singer (founder of the Singer sewing machine company) for patent infringement and won. Singer was forced to pay Howe $15,000 in back royalties. Additionally, Howe began receiving royalties for each sewing machine sold and donated much of his new fortune to the Union Army. Howe died in 1867 at the age of 48 after creating the Howe Sewing Machine Company in 1865.