April 3: The Sewing Machine Patent Wars

 

Elias Howe Jr. may not have invented the American sewing machine, but he did get the first patent on one in 1846 — which in turn spurred a flurry of similar patents filed by American inventors, all of whom were trying to get a competitive edge in the increasingly crowded sewing machine market of the mid-nineteenth century.

Howe nearly went bankrupt in the decade after obtaining his prized patent, however, due to a number of factors.  His sewing machine was effective, but expensive to produce, and procuring enough funding to mass-manufacture them was a challenge.  Worst of all, a number of copycats were selling cheaper knockoffs of his patented design, robbing him of nearly all the income being produced from his invention.  Howe brought the offenders to court in order to defend his patent, and after an excruciating series of court battles that spanned five years, he successfully won his case and became entitled to years of royalty payments.

One of the many lessons Howe learned from his protracted battle was that it was often smarter to buy out potential competitors from the start, instead of legally feuding with them later on — a perfect example of the business acumen that New England Yankees became famous for in the 19th century.  One such potential competitor was J. S. McGurdy of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who patented an “Improvement in Sewing-Machines” on April 3, 1866.  Elias Howe had just completed a huge manufacturing facility for The Howe Machine Company in Bridgeport at the time, having moved there with his family in 1860, and is listed as the Assignor on McGurdy’s 1866 patent.  Due to ill health, Howe passed away in 1867, but not before he and his company had become one of the most successful businesses in Bridgeport.   The city erected a statue of Elias Howe in 1873, the first in what would become an avenue of statues and monuments in Bridgeport’s famous Seaside Park.

A late 19th century illustration of the Howe Machine Company factory building in Bridgeport, CT.

Further Reading

U.S. Patent 53,743A – Improvement in Sewing-Machines,” Google Patents Database.

Arshad Mahmud, “Elias Howe,” American Society of Mechanical Engineers website.

Elias Howe statue, Bridgeport,ctmonuments.net