The wars of the sewing machines


Posted by in July's Magazine

The computer and the sewing machine have a lot in common argues Kennedy Wilson

Isaac Merrit Singer was the Bill Gates of his age. Both men became vastly wealthy and were entrepreneurs ahead of their time. Both identified a huge, global market that encompassed the domestic and commercial spheres – one in the development of the sewing machine, the other in computer software. Both Singer and Gates were brilliant with ideas and marketing and both have been characterised as ruthless businessmen.  

Just as Bill Gates cottoned on long before anyone else to the fact that the big money lay in computer software rather than hardware, so Isaac Singer was able to dominate the domestic market in sewing machines by being the first to introduce hire purchase, which helped quadruple sales in a year. In 2001 Bill Gates’s Microsoft was accused by the US Department of Justice of using its commercial weight to break anti-monopoly promises. 

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In surveys, inventions such as the telephone, the internet, and babies’ disposable nappies are often thought to be the most important consumer developments of the 21st century. But in the 19th century it was the sewing machine. It transformed the garment industry and fashion, for the first time allowing the poorly paid to dress in style. 

Singer made history by establishing the first multinational company and at one time it seemed every home had a Singer. But the sewing machine was neither Singer’s invention nor his brainchild. Elias Howe originally invented (or at least perfected) the sewing machine but had the idea stolen by Singer (who admittedly had improved on the original design). The story of Singer’s court battles with both Howe and his campaign to drive out competition could fill a book. 

In 1853 Singer’s sharp business practices caught up with him and he was sued for patent infringement by Howe. The ensuing publicity only helped Singer’s company. Meanwhile, on the personal front, Singer was hiding the fact that he was a spousal abuser and bigamist. 

Howe had struggled for years but got nowhere with his sewing invention. Finally he fled America in despair. When he returned and discovered that Singer had stolen his ideas, Howe took Singer to court. Singer didn’t have a leg to stand on “but was making so much money from Howe’s invention that he could afford the most expensive lawyers”, according to one biographer. 

Inventor of the elephant sewing machine, apparently

Finally, Singer was compelled to pay Howe a decent royalty on every machine built. Singer was no slouch when it came to manipulating the law. When he was legally forbidden to open a factory in England to supply machines to Europe, he switched operations to Clydebank in Scotland. 

Howe’s threat to bring a suit against Singer and other companies for infringing his patent would have effectively prevented the manufacture or sale of any more machines. Howe demanded $25,000 compensation, a fortune in those years. Under the threat of restraining orders all the sewing machine companies except Singer’s accepted Howe’s terms. The ‘war of the sewing machines’ had begun. 

In Howe’s trial against Singer in Boston the judge said that there was no case to answer and that the “public was indebted to Mr Howe”. Singer was ordered to pay $15,000. He had finally capitulated when Howe threatened to take him to the cleaners in other American cities, and made Singer agree to manufacture sewing machines under licence from Howe who took $25 for every machine sold. 

All Howe’s hardship paid off and it was estimated that his earnings from his sewing machine invention was nearly $2m. 

What followed was a courtroom free-for-all with countless sewing machine companies suing each other in order to put one or other out of business. This farcical legal merry-go-round was finally brought to an end by the lawyer president of one of the many sewing machine companies who devised the first ‘patent pool’. This allowed different companies to combine their efforts rather than waste their energy on internecine courtroom warfare. 

The patent pool became a necessary part of manufacturing when it became clear that the only way that anyone would ever be able to produce complex machinery without difficulties over patent rights was to combine forces. 

In 2001 Bill Gates’s Microsoft was accused by the US Department of Justice of using its commercial weight to break anti-monopoly promises

Singer, as stated, also had troubles in his private life. It later became public knowledge and an enormous scandal that he was running four families, three of which were illegitimate. When one of the wronged women discovered his deception she took the matter to one of the less reputable magazines and spilled the beans. For three years the Singer scandal was ‘acted out in various courtrooms in New York (while the main protagonist flitted back and forth between America and Europe, apparently quite unabashed)’, wrote an observer. 

When in 1861 Singer’s legal wife Mary Ann took her husband to court on grounds of adultery, Singer’s dirty linen went on public display. Apart from the mistresses, Mary Ann complained that she received “the most cruel and inhuman treatment”. 

Among Singer’s other faults it seems that he was a wife batterer. But perhaps he triumphed in the end. Despite the sensational aspects of the case, the outcome of a bitter battle of wills would forever tie the name Singer with the sewing machine in the public imagination.

Info: Isaac Merritt Singer: Sewing Machines and Sewing Seeds, Daniel Alef

Twitter: @KenWilson84

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