Elias Howe: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Douglas Rich

Douglas has taught high school History and has a master's degree in Education and Business Administration.

In this lesson, we will learn about Elias Howe and how his inventions helped transform industrialization throughout the world. We'll explore facts about his life and what drove him to success.

Who Was Elias Howe?

The Industrial Revolution began in the late 18th century with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney. Inventions, combined with the cotton gin, over the next century helped create a boom in industry throughout the world. New England was an area vital to advancements in factory production, specifically in Lowell, Massachusetts. Urban planning and factory planning helped Lowell to become one of the leading areas of textiles, or any good or goods produced by weaving, knitting, or felting, in the 20th Century. Factory workers in Lowell and surrounding areas were able to produce textiles at rates that had never been imagined previously. One invention that was popular in both homes and in factories to expedite production was the sewing machine. The sewing machine was patented by Elias Howe in 1846. The clothes you are wearing can be attributed to the contributions of inventions by Elias Howe.

Elias Howe's Early Life

Elias Howe was born on July 9, 1819, in Spencer, Massachusetts. Howe was born with a disability that left him weak in one arm, which may have led his inspiration to invent a functioning sewing machine to help ease the manual aspect of producing garments. He left home at the age of 16 in order to apprentice in a machine worker's shop and learn the intricacies of manufacturing. However, Howe's disability and a lull in the economy forced him to relocate to Boston and work in a friend's machine shop. At this shop, the dreams for inventing a reliable sewing machine started for Howe.

The disability would often cause a great deal of fatigue and pain that limited Howe's ability to perform manual labor. He had married by the time he moved to Boston and had to find ways to provide for his family. His sewing machine, if successful, could solve the financial problems for the family with Howe's disability limiting his options for steady work.

Success as an Inventor

Success did not come quickly for Howe with his new invention and he had a difficult time marketing the sewing machine to the local population. Onlookers at Howe's exhibits showed doubt with the ability of the machine to be a reliable replacement to seam stitch employees and tailors. Many individuals had attempted to invent a reliable and efficient sewing machine since the 18th century, but Howe was able to produce a machine that was much more effective and efficient compared to its predecessors. The machine produced by Howe featured a shuttle that was located underneath cloth that created a lock stitch, or an overlapping thread stitch, that was not available in previous sewing machine prototypes. Howe did not find success initially with the machine and moved to England in order to help increase his odds for financial gain.

Not finding success in England either, Howe returned to the United States in 1849. Upon his arrival, he had discovered that another inventor, Isaac Singer, had been marketing a sewing machine and had created a successful business with the machine that was using the patents of Howe. Having to defend his patent and infringements from Singer and other manufacturers, Howe went to court to ensure he was provided royalties for his invention. The court ruled in Howe's favor in 1856 and he earned the millions on his invention he had envisioned. Howe was finally able to provide financial support for his family that he desired.

Elias Howe
Elias Howe

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