April 3: The Sewing Machine Patent Wars


Inventor and longtime Connecticut resident Elias Howe Jr. may not have invented the first sewing machine, but he was the first person to obtain a U.S. patent for one in 1846.  Howe’s success in patenting his novel “lockstitch” sewing machine, which was the first to feature the automatic thread feed that remains a crucial component of modern-day sewing machines, sparked an “arms race” of sorts, as other American inventors rushed to try and patent their own machines in order to get a competitive edge in the increasingly crowded market of the mid-nineteenth century.

Elias Howe, circa 1850.

Despite promising signs of success, however, Howe nearly went bankrupt in the decade after obtaining his prized patent.  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 — among them Isaac Singer, whose sewing machines made him a household name — 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 legal battles was that it was often smarter to buy out potential competitors from the start, instead of suing them later on.  Twenty years after Howe obtained his first patent, a new potential competitor came on the scene: J. S. McGurdy of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who patented an “Improvement in Sewing-Machines” on April 3, 1866.  Elias Howe, who had just completed a huge manufacturing facility for The Howe Machine Company in Bridgeport after moving there with his family in 1860, is listed as the Assignor on McGurdy’s 1866 patent — one of over a dozen patents for improvements on sewing machines and related manufacturing processes that Howe and his company sponsored.

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

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, thanks in part to Howe’s persistent pursuit of patented innovation.  The city of Bridgeport 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.  Yankee ingenuity on display, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

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

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

Elias Howe statue, Bridgeport,” ctmonuments.net