Elias Howe grew up in poverty in Spencer, Massachusetts on his parents’ farm. Born in 1819, he was sickly as a child and had difficulty performing chores around the farm, but he did them anyway.
He later got rich from his invention and patent of the lock-stitch sewing machine, considered one of the great breakthroughs in history. Many patents were issued later for improvements to the sewing machine, but Howe was obviously mechanically gifted as he created something that didn’t exist previously.
Howe apprenticed at a textile factory at 16 which is where he first learned about fabric, then later went on to learn about mechanical designs from a master machinist in Boston. One day he overheard his boss tell a customer that whoever invented the sewing machine would make a fortune.
Actually, the first sewing machine had been invented in the early 1830s by Walter Hunt, who sold his machine to a blacksmith and never patented the design. Of course Howe was not aware of this and he made it his mission to invent a functional sewing machine.
Howe had a difficult time supporting his wife and three children on the $9/week that he earned (equivalent to $230 today). His wife worked to make ends meet by taking in sewing jobs. He analyzed her hand movements as she sewed and after working on his initial design for a year he began to test out models. He settled on a finished design and then patented it the following year in 1846.
The early machines were hard to use as they were “clunky” and the fabric needed to be pinned to a plate and then repositioned as the stitching went along. Needles jammed often and thread tension was touchy. The original machines are on display at the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington, D.C. Read more about Elias Howe in the Investor’s Business Daily.