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Elias Howe
Inventor, Sewing Machine
1819 - 1867

Elias Howe, 1819 - 1867, American inventor, constructed a practical sewing machine. In 1845 he invented a machine that would sew 250 stitches a minute. After receiving his sewing machine patent in 1846, Howe tried unsuccessfully for two years to find financial backing or a manufacturer to produce his amazing new sewing machine. Discouraged, he moved to England, feeling he might be successful there finding the financial backing he so desperately needed. After failing at finding a financial backer for two years, he sold the English rights to his sewing machine for a mere 5 pounds, which he had to discount to 4 pounds for cash, and returned to America.

Upon returning to America in 1851, Howe discovered that numerous manufacturers were producing sewing machines, and all contained one or more features covered exclusively by his patent. Howe borrowed money from his father (who eventually and reluctantly took a mortgage on his farm) to begin litigation against the infringers. Thus began the great battle. There has never been a court fight like it in the history of the American judicial system. Four years later, Howe had chests full of legal papers, Grover and Baker transcripts, which primarily covered the “stitch,” contained 3,575 pages, Wheeler Wilson had closet shelves full of transcripts, and Isaac Singer had to build a special closet to hold his legal records. In 1854, Judge Sprague of Boston declared, “The plaintiff’s patent is valid, other machines are infringements.” The defendant was Isaac M. Singer. Judge Sprague continued, “There is no evidence in this case that leaves a shadow of doubt that, for all the benefit conferred upon the public by the introd
uction of a sewing machine, the public is indebted to Mister Howe.” Howe was awarded royalties of $25.00 per machine on all sewing machines manufactured in the United States. During the years of the court battle, some manufacturers dropped out of the lawsuit, settling with Howe, and accepting license from him. Howe’s royalties from these manufacturers ranged from $15.00 to $25.00 per machine depending on the agreement.

As the lawsuit ended, the Civil War began, and Howe went to Connecticut, where he formed a regiment of volunteers. He declined command, and instead enlisted as a private. He served with his unit until ill health forced him to retire.

After returning from the war, Howe began manufacturing his own machines, only to immediately find himself embroiled in litigation over other manufacturers’ patents. Patent infringement lawsuits were numerous between all manufacturers until 1856 when the “Sewing Machine Combination was formed.” In addition, while Howe was in the Army, his brother Amasa Howe opened a sewing machine factory, “Howe Sewing Machine Company. Elias Howe’s new company name was also Howe Sewing Machine Company, and again Elias found himself in additional litigation on another front. Elias changed his name to Howe Machine Company, ending the lawsuit. Eventually Elias and Amasa Howe merged, building a factory in Bridgeport: unable to get along they dissolved their partnership a couple of years later. In 1867 Elias Howe’s patent expired. He passed away October 3, 1867.

Elias’s sons-in-law, the Stockwells, took over the factory with Howe’s failing health. In 1873, they bought out Amasa Howe’s son, B. P. Howe. They continued manufacturing machines until 1886 when they went out of business, ending an era in the sewing machine industry.

1994 Vacuum & Sewing Hall of Fame Inductee