Pvt. Elias Howe, Jr., USA

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Pvt. Elias Howe, Jr., USA

Birthplace: Spencer, Worcester County, Massachusetts, United States
Death: October 03, 1867 (48)
Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, United States
Place of Burial: Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Elias Howe and Polly Howe
Husband of Rose Howe and Elizabeth Jennings Howe
Father of Jane Robinson Caldwell; Simon Ames Howe and Julia Maria Howe
Brother of Mary Howe; Fanny Barri; Sylvester Howe; Corintha Plummer; Juliett Tucker and 3 others

Occupation: Inventor of Lockstitch Sewing Machine
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Pvt. Elias Howe, Jr., USA

Inventor of the sewing machine

Descendant of John Howe, of Sudbury, who became a freeman of Massachusetts Bay Colony in May l640 and died at Marlboro in l680. Elias Howe went to school occasionally in the winter time and worked on the farm and in the mills. The machinery of the latter interested him particularly, and he liked nothing better than to tinker with it and make repairs. When he was twelve years old his father could not afford to keep him in clothes any longer and hired him out to a neighboring farmer. Poor health and lameness prevented him from doing heavy farm work, and a year later he returned home to help in the saw and grist-mills. Ambitious to learn more about machinery, he went to Lowell, Mass., in l835 and became an apprentice in an establishment that manufactured cotton machinery. The panic of l837 severed this connection and Howe went to Cambridge, Mass. Here he found work in a machine-shop where he operated a newly invented hemp -carding machine. After a few months he went to Boston and became an apprentice of Ari Davis, a watch-maker primarily, but also a maker of surveying instruments and scientific apparatus for Harvard professors. Davis was an ingenious mechanician and, in spite of his eccentricities, was much consulted by both inventors and capitalists. In this ideal environment, with the finest of mechanical devices upon which to practice, Howe became both skilled and deft as a machinist. One day he overheard Davis suggest to a would-be inventor that he make a sewing machine, and from that moment he brooded over the possibility of devising a machine which would sew with the same motions as the human hand. In the meantime, Mar. 3, l84 1, he married Elizabeth J. Ames of Boston. He at length constructed a machine with a double-pointed needle and eye in the middle, but it proved an utter failure. In l844, however, he made another attempt, this time having in mind a lock-stitch and an eye-pointed needled united with a shuttle, an idea derived from the looms he had been familiar with all his life and had helped to make in the factory at Lowell. While the idea in the end proved a good one, he had first to devise a shuttle loaded with a lower thread and the means of throwing the shuttle at the proper intervals through loops of the upper thread. Soon after beginning this second ma chine, he gave up his nine-dollar-a-week job with Davis in order to devote his whole time to the task he had set himself. His father helped him by boarding him and his family in Cambridge, where he was then living. Howe later prevailed upon a friend, George Fisher, to become his partner, Fisher receiving the Howe family into his home as guests and advancing five hundred dollars toward buying materials and tools. Throughout the winter of l844-45 Howe labored steadily at his machine and by April l845 he had completed it to a point where it sewed with evenness and smoothness. In a public demonstration it exceeded in speed five of the swiftest hand sewers, for it could make 250 stitiches a minute. Notwithstanding its success, however Howe met with financial discouragement. In l846 he completed a second machine, and after inducing Fisher to advance t he necessary money, he took it to Washington, where he deposited it in the Patent office with his application for a patent. This was granted Sept. 10, 1846, patent No. 4750 (House Executive Document 52, 29 Cong., 2 Sess., pp. 125, 308-09). Since he could arouse no interest in his machine in the United States, he decided to offer it in England. Accordingly, in October l846, his brother Amasa went to London with a third machine and succeeded in selling it for 250 pounds to William Thomas, a large manufacturer of corsets, shoes, and umbrellas. This transaction also gave to Thomas the entire rights of the machine for Great Britain. Seeing the possibilities of adapting it to sewing leather, Thomas induced Howe, through his brother, to come to London, and advanced the passage money. After working eight months for fifteen dollars a week, Howe quarreled with Thomas and found himself stranded. By pawning his model and patent papers he raised enough money to send his family home, and a few months later he returned in a sailing vessel, paying his way by cooking for the steerage. He arrived in Cambridge in time to reach the bedside of his dying wife. Meanwhile knowledge of the favor with which his machine had been received in England had reached the United States, and some manufacturers had already begun to make and sell sewing machines like Howe's in design. With a hopeless feeling, at first, he sued these manufacturers for infringement, using money advanced by George W. Bliss who had become his partner through the purchase of Fisher's half interest in the patent. One of the longest fights in American patent law followed, continuing fr om l849 to l854. With the proceeds of one or two successful suits, Howe made and marketed a number of sewing machines in New York, and thus kept himself alive. Finally his patent was declared basic and a judgment f or a royalty was granted to him on every machine that infringed his patent (Howe vs. Underwood, 12 Federal Cases, 678). Shortly after this Bliss died and Howe for a nominal sum acquired full ownership of his patent. It expired in l860 but was extended for seven years in March l861, and in these years Howe's royalties often reached $4.00 a week. During the Civil War he organized and equipped an infantry regiment in Connecticut, and though he placed his means at its disposal he served in it as a private. In l865 he organized the Howe Machine Company of Bridgeport, Conn ., and the perfected new machine which he there produced won the gold medal at the Paris Exhibition of l867. After the death of this first wife, he married again (Howe Genealogies). He died in Brooklyn, N.Y.(Howe's own account of his invention and development of the sewing machine, including the litigation, is printed in Before then. Philip F. Thomas, Commission er of Patents, in the Matter of the Application of Elias Howe, Jr., for an Extension of his Sewing Machine Patent (l860). See also The Howe Exhibition Cat. of Sewing Machines & Cases (l967), issued by the Howe Machine Company; Practical Mag. (Lon don), V l875), 321-24; James Parton, in Atlantic Mo., May l867; Geo. Ile s, Leading Am. Inventors (l912); W. B. Kaempffert, A Popular Hist. of A m. Invention (l924), vol. II; E. W. Byrn, The Progress of Invention in t he Nineteenth Century (l900); J. L. Bishop, A hist. of Am. Manufactures fr om l608-l860 (l864), vol. II; N. Salamon Hist. of the Sewing Machine fr om the Year l750; With a Biog. of Elias Howe,Jr.(London, l863). H. M. Town e, Hist. Sketches Relating to Spencer, Mass. Vol. I (l90l); D. W. Howe, Ho we Geneals ....John Howe of Sudbury (l929): N.Y. Tribune, Oct. 5, l867.)

Dictionary of American Biography, Edited by Dumas

   alone, Vol. IX, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, l932.
   Note: Draper's book incorrectly attributes this invention to Elias Howe Senior
   "The Bemis History and Genealogy" by Colonel Thomas Waln-Morgan Draper,190 0, published San Francisco, California, copies in the Library of Congress

ELIAS HOWE, Inventor of the Sewing Machine

"He almost beggared himself before he discovered where the eye of the need le of the sewing machine should be located. His original idea was to foll ow the model of the ordinary needle, and have the eye at the heel. It nev er occurred to him that it should be placed at the point, and he might ha ve failed altogether if he had not dreamed he was building a sewing machi ne for a savage king in a strange country. Just as in his actual experien ce he was perplexed about the needle's eye. He thought the king gave h im 24 hours in which to complete the machine and make it sew, or suffer de ath as a punishment. Howe worked and worked, and puzzled, and finally ga ve it up. Then he thought he was taken out to be executed. He noticed th at the warriers carried spears that were pierced near the head. Instant ly came the solution, and while the inventor was begging for time he awok e. It was 4 o'clock in the morning. He jumped out of bed, ran to his wor kshop, and by 9, a needle with an eye at the point had been rudely modele d. After that, it was easy. That is the true story of an important incid ent in the invention of the sewing machine."

"Howe Genealogies" by Daniel Wait Howe, Revised & Edited by Gilman Bigel ow Howe, 1929:

In early life he was employed at home in the making of cards used in the m anufacture of cotton cloth, and thus acquired some of the ideas of machine ry which he afterwards applied in the invention of the sewing machin g. He lived with his father until 1835, when he went to Lowell, Massachus etts, and obtained a situation in a manufactory of cotton machinery, whe re he stayed for a couple of years, and then went to Cambridge, Massachuse tts, and got employment in a machine shop. In a few months he went to Bos ton, and obtained employment in a shop kept by one Ori Davis for the manuf acture of nautical and philosophical instruments, and it was while ther e, that he first conceived the idea of inventing the sewing machine, a nd he began work upon it about the year 1843. He received some pecunia ry assistance from a former school mate, George Fisher, and in 1845 he pro duced a machine for which he afterwards secured a patent.

He vainly endeavored to interest the tailors of Boston in the invention, b ut they would have nothing to do with it and becoming discouraged, he to ok employment for several months as a railroad engineer. In 1847 he and h is brother Amasa B. Howe, went to England to endeavor to introduce the inv ention there. Soon after, his wife and three children joined him in Londo n. While there, he obtained employment in the establishment of William Th omas, who contracted with Elias to adapt his machine to the manufactu re of corsets. After a few months, in consequence of some disagreement wi th his employer he was discharged. This seemed to have been the darkest p eriod of his life; his invention appeared to be a failure, and all his yea rs of labor upon it to have gone for naught. He was out of employment a nd out of means, his wife was in failing health and he was in a strange la nd, and far from home and kindred.

By extraordinary exertions and economy, and the hlep of a few friend s, he managed to raise money to send his wife and children back to Americ a, and in 1849 he followed, landing in New York with only half a cro wn in his pocket. He soon found employment in a machine shop, but soon re ceived news that his wife was dying in Cambridge. He was so poor th at he was compelled to borrow money to go to Cambride, and was oblig ed to attend the funeral of his wife in his daily working clothes. Soon a fter, the news came that all his household goods had been lost in the wre ck of the vessel in which they were shipped. He spent several years tryi ng to re-purchase the rights which he had sold in the years of adversit y, and in lawsuits with infringers upon his patent.

At last, in 1854, the validity of his patent was established and this w as the turning point in his fortunes. He was recognized as the real inven tor of the sewing machine, his invention containing the essential featur es of all other machines, and his income soon reached an enormous su m, it being estimated that at the expiration of his patent, he had realiz ed about $2,000,000. He received many medals and other marks of appreciat ion of his invention, including a gold medal and a Cross of the Legi on of Honor at the Paris Exposition in 1867.

During the Civil War, Mr. Howe was a zealous supporter of the Government, being largely instrumental in recruiting the 17th Regt. Conn. Vols ., in which he enlisted as a private, and in which he served until he was compelled to leave the service by reason of failing health. At one time while he was in the service and the government was in financial straits, Mr. Howe advanced the money with which to pay the soldiers of the regiment.


Elias Howe, Jr. (July 9, 1819 – October 3, 1867) was an American inventor and sewing machine pioneer. In 2004 he was inducted into the United States National Inventors Hall of Fame

Early life & family Howe was born on July 9,1819 to Dr. Elias Howe, Sr. and Polly (Bemis) Howe in Spencer, Massachusetts. Howe spent his childhood and early adult years in Massachusetts where he apprenticed in a textile factory in Lowell beginning in 1835. After mill closings due to the Panic of 1837, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to work as a mechanic with carding machinery, apprenticing along with his cousin Nathaniel P. Banks. Beginning in 1838, he apprenticed in the shop of Ari Davis, a master mechanic in Cambridge who specialized in the manufacture and repair of chronometers and other precision instruments.[1] It was in the employ of Davis that Howe seized upon the idea of the sewing machine.

He married Elizabeth Jennings Ames, daughter of Simon Ames and Jane B. Ames on 3 Mar 1841 in Cambridge.[2] They had three children: Jane Robinson Howe, Simon Ames Howe, and Julia Maria Howe.

Invention of sewing machine and career Contrary to popular belief, Howe was not the first to conceive of the idea of a sewing machine. Many other people had formulated the idea of such a machine before him, one as early as 1790, and some had even patented their designs and produced working machines, in one case at least 80 of them.[3] However, Howe originated significant refinements to the design concepts of his predecessors, and on September 10, 1846, he was awarded the first United States patent (U.S. Patent 4,750) for a sewing machine using a lockstitch design. His machine contained the three essential features common to most modern machines:

-a needle with the eye at the point, -a shuttle operating beneath the cloth to form the lock stitch, -an automatic feed.

Despite securing his patent, Howe had considerable difficulty finding investors in the United States to finance production of his invention, so his elder brother Amasa Bemis Howe traveled to England in October 1846 to seek financing. Amasa was able to sell his first machine for £250 to William Thomas of Cheapside, London, who owned a factory for the manufacture of corsets, umbrellas and valises. Elias and his family joined Amasa in London in 1848, but after business disputes with Thomas and failing health of his wife, Howe returned nearly penniless to the United States. His wife Elizabeth, who preceded Elias back to the United States, died in Cambridge, Massachusetts shortly after his return in 1849.[5]

Despite his efforts to sell his machine, other entrepreneurs began manufacturing sewing machines. Howe was forced to defend his patent in a court case that lasted from 1849 to 1854 because he found that Isaac Singer with cooperation from Walter Hunt had perfected a facsimile of his machine and was selling it with the same lockstitch that Howe had invented and patented. He won the dispute and earned considerable royalties from Singer and others for sales of his invention. Howe contributed much of the money he earned to the equip the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Union Army during the Civil War, in which Howe served during the Civil War as a private in Company D and regimental postmaster from August 14, 1862, to July 19, 1865.[6][7]

Later life and legacy In 1865, Elias established the Howe Machine Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut that was operated by the Stockwell brothers, his brothers-in-law, from 1867 until about 1885. Between 1867 and 1870, Elias's brother Amasa operated a factory in New York City manufacturing sewing machines under the brand name of A.B. Howe. Elias's sewing machine won the gold medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1867,[1] and that same year he was awarded the Légion d'honneur by Napoleon III for his invention.[8]

Howe died at age 48, on 3 October 1867. He was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn New York with his second wife Rose Halladay who died on 10 Oct 1890. Both Singer and Howe ended their days as multi-millionaires.[9] The Beatles' 1965 movie Help! is dedicated to Howe as part of its closing credits, and in 2004 he was inducted into the United States National Inventors Hall of Fame.[1]

Genealogy Howe was a direct descendant of John Howe who arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 from Brinklow, Warwickshire, England and settled in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Howe was also a descendant of Edmund Rice another early immigrant to Massachusetts Bay Colony as follows:

Elias Howe, Jr, son of Elias Howe (1792 – ?), son of Elijah Howe, Jr. (ca1769 – 1816), son of Elijah Howe (1731 – 1808),[11] son of Jaazaniah Howe (1704 – 1762), son of Deliverance Rice (1681 – 1723), daughter of John Rice (1659 – 1719), son of Deacon Edward Rice (1622 – 1712), son of Edmund Rice (1594 – May 3, 1663)

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Pvt. Elias Howe, Jr., USA's Timeline

July 9, 1819
Spencer, Worcester County, Massachusetts, United States
April 22, 1842
Cambridge, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States
February 28, 1844
Cambridge, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States
January 27, 1846
Cambridge, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States
October 3, 1867
Age 48
Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, United States
Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, United States