Elias Howe


Elias Howe was born in Massachusetts and spent much of his early life apprenticed at a textile factory. After the Panic of 1837 led to the closing of the mill, however, he found employment instead as a mechanic, and in 1838 he began working in the shop of Ari Davis. There, Howe began to formulate his idea for the invention of the sewing machine.

Elias Howe
Howe married Elizabeth Jennings Ames in 1841, and four years later he patented his design for the first sewing machine. Howe was at that time, of course, not the only inventor seizing upon the notion of a sewing machine, but his prototype used a lockstitch design not seen in previous models. Despite his best efforts, however, he had difficulty marketing his machine, and he enlisted the aid of his brother Amasa, who found a buyer in William Thomas of London, England. Howe’s family soon joined Amasa in Europe, but Elias’ wife’s failing health and his own disagreements with Thomas led the inventor to return home, very poor, in 1849. His wife died soon after their homecoming.

At the same time, other people were coming forward with very similar machines, finally leading Howe to defend his patent in a court case that lasted for five years. He won the suit and earned considerable profit from those who had illegally marketed his invention. Howe then contributed much of what he had earned to the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Regiment of the Union Army, in which he served during the Civil War. After the war, he established the Howe Machine Company, run by his brothers-in-law, and in 1867 he was awarded the Légion d’honneur by Napoleon III. Elias passed away that same year, aged 48, and was buried in New York. He died a multi-millionaire, and in 2004 he was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Key events during the life of Elias Howe:

Apprenticed in a textile factory.
Moved to Cambridge, MA to work as a mechanic with carding machinery.
Apprenticed in the shop of Ari Davis.
Married Elizabeth Jennings Ames.
Patented his sewing machine.
Moved his family to England to join his brother Amasa Howe.
Returned to the United States.
  Death of Elizabeth.
  Defended his patent in a court case lasting until 1854.
Served as regimental postmaster during the Civil War.
Established the Howe Machine Company.
Inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Elias Howe & the Invention of the Sewing Machine  in  Great Inventors and Their Inventions  by  Frank P. Bachman
Whitney and Howe  in  Builders of Our Country: Book II  by  Gertrude van Duyn Southworth

Image Links

Howe Helping at the Mill
 in Great Inventors and Their Inventions

Howe Watching his Wife Sew
 in Great Inventors and Their Inventions

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