26 September 2022
Sewing machines - who really invented them?
In the spirit of London Fashion Week, I thought I’d dedicate this blog post to looking at the early history of the sewing machine – the tool that made the mass production of clothing possible. It is also a good example of a machine which no one can quite agree on who the inventor was.
If I describe something first, have I invented it? How detailed does my description need to be? Do I need a working model to prove my invention works? Are my ideas similar to a future proven solution? Do I need a patent?
How you answer questions such as these will likely determine who you think the true inventor of the sewing machine is. So rather than tell you who I think it is, I have instead highlighted some influential early patents from within our historical IP collection so you can decide for yourself.
Focusing on patents (should) allow us to check something is new, or at least involves an inventive step. Like any invention, it is very possible that others created sewing machines similar to those described below first, but for whatever reason did not apply for a patent. Something we will briefly explore later.
GB 701 of 1755
In 1755, Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal, a German born physician based in London, received a patent for a ‘needle for ornamenting fabrics’. The needle had a point at either end, meaning it could pass through fabric without needing to be turned. Some commentators have said the movement of the needle was via mechanical means, but the description goes into little detail.
GB 1,764 of 1790
In 1790, an English cabinet maker by the name of Thomas Saint was granted a patent for five types of varnishes and their uses, a machine for ‘spinning, twisting, and doubling the thread’, a machine for ‘stitching, quilting, or sewing’, and a machine for ‘platting or weaving’.
It is of course the machine for ‘stitching, quilting, or sewing’ that is of interest to this blog post, however it was somewhat lost in the busyness of the patent. So much so that when the Patent Office republished older patents and arranged them into new classes, it was placed into ‘wearing apparel’ rather than ‘sewing and embroidering’. It is safe to say Saint’s sewing machine was all but forgotten.
That is until 1874, when a sewing machine manufacturer called William Newton Wilson found the patent while undertaking research at the Patent Office. He had the sewing machine built and, after some adjustments to the looper, was able to prove it worked.
The machine incorporated many features still to be found on modern machines (as well as in later patents), such as an overhanging arm, a vertical needle-bar, and a feed system for the fabric.
The machine Newton Wilson built can now be seen at the Science Museum.
Fr 616 of 1804
In 1804, Thomas Stone and James Henderson received a French patent for their sewing machine, which passed a hand sewing needle back and forth through the fabric using a pair of pincers at either side (imitating the action of human fingers). It unfortunately required frequent stops in order to replace the short length of thread it used.
Austrian Exclusive Privilege in 1814
In 1814, Josef Madersperger, an Austrian tailor, received the early Austrian equivalent of a patent for his sewing machine. It used a double pointed needle (like Wiesenthal’s) and replicated as best it could hand sewing. In 1839, Madersperger received another patent equivalent for a machine that used an eye-pointed needle.
Neither machine was ever made publically available and Madersperger would unfortunately die destitute in an Viennese almshouse in 1850. In 1933 a memorial was erected in Resselpark in Vienna, declaring Madersperger the inventor of the sewing machine.
FR 7434 of 1830
In 1830, a French tailor called Barthélemy Thimonnier received a French patent for his sewing machine which used a hooked needle to replicate hand sewing. The same year Thimonnier found himself overseeing 80 of his machines in a Paris workshop making uniforms for the French Army.
Unfortunately the success was not to last, as in 1831 all 80 machines were destroyed by a mob of angry tailors, fearful his invention was a danger to their livelihoods. Although later patents followed, Thimonnier never found further success and died in poverty at the age of 63.
One of Thimonnier’s 1830 sewing machines can also be seen at the Science Museum.
GB 10,424 of 1844
In 1844, John Fisher and James Gibbons received a patent for, among other things, a machine for ornamenting lace. While not originally intended to be a sewing machine, it nevertheless was able to function as one, and used both an eye-pointed needle and a shuttle – both still in use on machines today.
US 4,750 of 1846
In 1846, Elias Howe Jr. was granted a patent for his sewing machine which used a lockstitch design (the most common mechanical stitch made by a sewing machine today, which uses two threads that ‘lock’ together). Unfortunately Howe struggled to find financial backing for his machine, and so was forced to take a job in London modifying one of his sewing machines for a buyer there.
When Howe eventually returned to America he discovered sewing machines were being sold that appeared to infringe his patent. One such sewing machine was the work of an Isaac Merritt Singer – a man whose surname would soon become synonymous with the sewing machine.
Howe sued Singer for patent infringement and won. Many more legal battles would ensue between the main sewing machine inventors and manufacturers before they would decide to come together to form the first ‘patent pool’ (and the Sewing Machine Combination) in 1856.
With my earlier disclaimer in mind, it’s worth briefly looking at an inventor who never took out a patent – a man by the name of Walter Hunt. Howe’s sewing machine is often credited as being the first to sew a lockstitch, however Hunt invented a sewing machine that did so 13 years earlier in 1833. Not wanting to put seamstresses out of work, Hunt never applied for a patent, but his machine came to light during the patent trials.
Hunt can therefore be called the inventor of the lockstitch, however Howe had the patent for it. Earning him $5 for every sewing machine sold in America. Howe soon became a very rich man.
So that was a very condensed account of the early history of the sewing machine. Several less important patents were skipped in the name of brevity, and many of the inventions that were included could have filled a blog post many times longer than this one alone. If you would like to know more then please do come in to the library to read further.
Hopefully you now have a better idea of who you think invented the sewing machine, or maybe you feel it was actually the accumulative work of many.
Steven Campion, Business & IP Centre intellectual property expert.