Today, the sewing machine. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
In the early days of this
program, I had an old dot-matrix printer that used
accordion-pleat paper. I put the printer on my
mother's old floor-model sewing machine -- made in
1905. The sewing mechanism folds down, so I left
the top flat to accommodate the printer. The paper
sat on the foot treadle below and fed up into the
back of the printer. It was all very neat. You'd
think the sewing machine had been designed
as a printer-stand.
My mother never gave the machine up for an electric
model. She liked its movement -- the hand-foot
coordination. I liked the florid art
noveau design of the cast-iron stand. I liked
the grain of the walnut top and the pretty molding.
I liked knowing that if push came to shove, I could
actually sew with it.
The invention of the sewing machine had to
occur after the Industrial Revolution. The
production of fabric had suddenly been radically
increased. We had more than we ever could've sewn.
So in 1790 an Englishman named Thomas Saint
patented the crude forebear of today's machines.
For the next fifty years, patent after patent
chipped away at the problem of making a machine do
the complicated things a human hand does when it
The strongest all-around patent was one filed by
Elias Howe in 1846. It led to a spate of
thinly-veiled copies and to a patent war. The major
inventors finally had to form a sewing-machine
trust that paid Howe a handsome royalty. The
industrial giant that emerged from this trust was
the Singer Company.
My mother's sewing machine was made by the Willcox-Gibbs Company. It
was founded around James Gibbs's patent for a
chain-stitching machine in 1856. The company was
one of many that competed with Singer by making
less-expensive machines. It stayed in business at
least through the 1960s. In 1859 Scientific
American magazine wrote about the
Willcox-Gibbs machines. It said:
It is astonishing how, in a few years, the
sewing machine has made such strides in popular
favor [, going from] a mechanical wonder [to] a
household necessity ...
That's what happened. Sewing machines took the
country by storm and changed American life. The
eight-page section on sewing machines in the 1892
Appleton's Cyclopaedia of Applied
Mechanics lists a dizzying array of
lock-stitch and chain-stitch domestic and
commercial machines. The largest, a
sixteen-foot-wide carpet sewing machine, could
handle material an inch thick.
When I was six, my mother laid me out on a piece of
butcher paper, drew a line around me, and used it
as a pattern. She sewed up a human figure, stuffed
it with cotton, hem-stitched a face upon it, gave
it hair of brown yarn, and clad it in my own
home-made clothes. Then she gave me this life-sized
alter ego as a playmate.
I look at the old machine and see my mother's
quirky imagination, her care for me, her
highly-honed mechanical skills. And I remember
American home life as it was so powerfully affected
by these beautiful and remarkably complex old
engines of change.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Cooper, G. R., The Sewing Machine: Its Invention
and Development. 2nd ed., revised and expanded.
Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.
Modern Mechanism, Appelton's Cyclopaedia of
Applied Mechanics. (Park Benjamin, ed.) New
York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892, pp. 790-796
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 167.
The Wheeler and Wilson Sewing Machine
(From Appelton's Cyclopaedia of
Applied Mechanics, 1892)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.