Alex has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications world wide.
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than any American alive to date."
New York Tribune
Walter Hunt was one of the most prolific inventors in American History. His inventions are still in use today. The safety pin, the sewing machine, the fountain pen, Walter invented everything from ice breakers for ships to repeating rifles, nail making machines to safety lamps. So why doesn't every school child know his name? We all know Edison and Bell, Faraday and Voltaire but Hunt! Who was he?
Let me tell you what little I know about one of the men in history that I would love to have met.
Walter Hunt died of pneumonia aged 63 in June of 1859 after falling ill in his workshop, still inventing. He left behind an almost silent legacy of genius. Why was it silent? Because our American genius had a fatal flaw. He was an inventor not a business man, something that his son George W. Hunt was to rectify when selling his ideas but that was too late to make his father rich and famous.
Walter was one of the first pioneers of the sewing machine. He ended up fighting nearly every patent holder and manufacturer of sewing machines in his volatile life and gaining almost nothing.
Walter spent nearly 15 years fighting court battles (some financed by Isaac Singer) to prove and secure his inventions, all because of fate. Walter was born like most of us, without wealth. He had to struggle to make ends meet and pay the rent. Had he been born wealthy he may have been the most famous American inventor ever!
Unfortunately his humble beginnings in Martinsburg, New York, meant that every time he had a stroke of inventing genius he sold it to pay off debts or simply for food and a roof over his families head. This was a pattern that he repeated over and over with his inventions. He would spend all his efforts on inventing a new product, often not even bothering to patent it, then sell it to the highest bidder.
No one knows how many things Walter actually invented but we do know it is many more than we have records of. He was well known for selling ideas as quickly as he could to get enough money to start his next project. He even sold all the rights to the safety pin.
Let me explain why I call him an inventive genius. Look at one of his easy inventions, the safety pin below. Anyone could make it so where is the genius? The genius is inventing something that never existed before. Take the Phillips head, all screws had flat grooves in them until Phillips came up with the simple but brilliant idea of his cross-head screws.
Still not convinced of genius? Okay here is the challenge, invent something today that has never existed before. Not something silly, like a cloud puller, something useful to the world. I have only invented two things in 50 years. How about you? I am trying to explain, rather badly, that inventing something entirely new, like the sewing machine, something that had not been around before you had the idea, that's genius.
Improving on something that already exists is comparatively easy. When Walter invented his sewing machine, there were no patents on it, none existed. 20 years later there were thousands of patents covering all aspects of the sewing machine. Once someone had seen how a machine worked they could improve it. In a second the human brain can recognise a way to make something, like the safety pin and copy it.
We must ask the question...Did Elias Howe ever see Walter's first sewing machine on public display?
Back to the story. Walter's lack of long-term vision in his business ability would leave him respected in his local community but a virtual unknown in history. Other pioneers in the sewing field like Elias Howe and Isaac Singer became the wealthiest men of their generation.
Walter was the oldest of 14 children, born on July 29th 1796 into a farming community. His mother, Rachel, must have had her hands full bringing up a whole coach loads of kids. His father, Sherman, would have found his children useful as they grew, working on the farm or bringing in money from local jobs.
Fancy having 13 kids! In no particular order, Walter, Almira, Hiram, Harry, Philo, Albinos, and Adoniram, who became a crucial part in his later sewing machine invention. Then there was Levisa, Enos and Sherman. Angelina, Elizabeth and Hanna. Give me strength. I'm worn out just writing them down, imagine the washing!
Walter spun wool and cotton along with his brothers. This was to prove a useful grounding for his later invention of the sewing machine. At the Lowville Textile Mill in Lewis County Walter's genius started to show. He invented several flax, wool and cotton spinners to help production at the mill. However Walter wanted more and found his future in New York City.
New York in the 1820's was buzzing. It was in the big cities where people could find work. In 1827 Walter decided to move his family to the city where he would make and sell his inventions.
On an earlier trip to NY Walter had witnessed a needless accident when a child was injured by one of the thousands of horse-drawn carriages that crammed the NY streets. A simple alarm could possibly save lives and Walter soon invented a foot-operated bell. As usual he simply sold his idea and forgot about it.
Later in his life this invent-and-sell attitude was to have serious consequences on his wealth. Now while Walter was busy inventing such great ideas as the safety pin he came across the idea of making a sewing machine. His mind was always alive with ideas. the safety pin was invented while talking to a friend. Walter was simply bending a piece of wire that he had picked up. He realised he could make a pin that was unique and could be patented. But I let's get back to the sewing machine.
Walter worked on his sewing machine, a unique invention in the history of the world, using a curved needle and shuttle. He built his machine out of wood and played with it when he had time. Eventually it almost worked, when once again he sold it and moved on. Only when his brother, Adoniram, paid by the purchaser of the sewing machine Walter had made, Geo Arrowsmith, copied Walter's machine in metal, did it actually sew a reasonable stitch. This was in 1834. Once made it went on public sale and display. It had no patent protection from any of the parties involved, something that was going to cost Walter a fortune and make his future enemy, Elias Howe, rich.
In the early days of sewing machines there were just a handful of patents, today there are hundreds of thousands but we are talking the 1830's. In France Barthelemy Thimonnier was messing around with a sewing machine but it had no shuttle lockstitch and no needle with the hole at the pointed end. these were two unique features never seen in the world until Walter Hunt used them on a sewing machine.
Of course shuttles were in common use in the weaving industry but they were much larger wooden affairs. Walter would have been familiar with these and was already responsible on inventing rope and thread machines in his early days at Willis Hoskins Mill in Lewis County. Ropes on the rope twisting machines were often held by passing the end-threads through a metal hole much like a huge sewing needle. You see what I am getting at here. Walter was already familiar with the two unique parts of his new fangled machine, the shuttle and needle. All he had to do, like James Dyson of vacuum cleaner fame, was to miniaturise the components into a small machine. His inventive brain was hard at work years before his sewing machine actually appeared in 1833.
As I have said, Walter had this habit of inventing and selling his projects. Once he had invented the sewing machine he moved on to another project and forgot all about it. He certainly never perfected it. Walter was no manufacturer he was an inventor. Once he could earn a buck for his invention it was sold to pay for food for the table.
In 1828 Walter, a man who became bored easily, was doing very nicely with land speculation along the Hudson River area. New streets were being opened up and leases were for sale. Walter made thousands in land leases which goes against current Internet records telling people he was a poor old inventor. In 1829 he patented his Spiral Twisting machine for hemp and cotton.
These inventions and land leases led Walter to living in his first substantial house in Amos Street. Here he had a small workshop and a studio for his paintings in which he indulged during moments of leisure. It was also here that his daughter Frances Hunt was born.
In 1831 Walter helped Levi Kidder, his friend and neighbour, to patent a water cistern. In 1833 Walter and his family moved to 22 Asylum Street. Walter was always impatient and was soon moving again to Bedford Street. It was even noted in the paper that the Hunts' seem to move with the seasons!
We are getting away from his sewing machine, so we must jump a few years and get to the story that concerns us. 1833 is a big year for the sewing machine and while Walter was working on such ideas as his Globe Stove he was also building the first lock stitch sewing machine.
Walter came across the idea after, Polly, his long suffering wife tried to show him how to sew. His attempts made the family laugh and soon Walter was in his workshop. Surely the master inventor could make a machine that sewed an even stitch!
Walter Hunt 1833
Before long Hunt's sewing machine was on display as a modern miracle at the Globe Stove Company. Once again our inventor sold his idea. With a simple handshake, no legal documents or proof for future law suits Walter sold his wooden invention for cash to his friend Arrowsmith.
Arrowsmith employed Walter's younger brother, a skilled engineer well known to him, to produce the machine in metal. Money was to be raised for manufacture and patents but they never happened. For a multitude of reasons the idea simply faded away.
Years went by. The machine which had been seen publicly and advertised extensively was never patented or mass produced. What a mistake. A mistake that would cost Walter millions.
The Great Sewing Machine Battle
In 1846 J. J. Greenough patented the first American sewing machine and in May of the same year, 1846, Elias Howe Jr was awarded his patent for a lock-stitch machine using two threads, a shuttle and a curved needle with a point at the bottom end. Both these patents were to causes Walter serious heartburn.
Years had passed since Walter had invented and forgot about his little wooden sewing machine. The metal machine forged by his young brother had been on display but also forgotten about.
Time rolls on and we now step into the 1850's. In walks the master litigator, Elias Howe.
Did Howe ever see Hunt's sewing machine all those years before? We shall never know. All the court cases show very dubious characters, all swearing under oath, different versions of the truth.
Elias Howe arrived back in America after trying to sell his, pretty useless, machine all over Europe. He finds that the Industrial Revolution has been moving fast in his absence and several companies are making sewing machines. These machines are using ideas that were similar to his and he went ballistic. Howe sued just about everyone he could and because there was little evidence to contradict his statements at the time, he was successful.
Elias Howe's early litigation success gained him wealth. With money he became more ruthless. But..., oh yes there is a but..., in marches the flamboyant Isaac Merritt Singer. Actor, inventor and shrewd business man. The two men hated each other, coming to blows more than once. However it did not stop them getting together in a business pact later when the court cases were getting out of hand. Basically their hate was tempered by the wealth they were going to gain when they formed the Sewing Machine Combination.
1854, Isaac was being sued by Howe, and Isaac paid Walter nice lumps of money to resurrect his old sewing machine. Walter's old wooden machine, and coincidentally his brothers metal machines, had long gone and were nowhere to be found.
The idea was to try and gain a patent back-dated for his 1833 machine or at least prove Howe was not the inventor and make his patent useless. Unfortunately no one could produce the machine Walter had made or the metal one his younger brother had made and all the plans were lost as well!
Of course in 1853, 20 years after Walter had made his little wooden machine, the idea of a patent was ridiculous. Mind you the lawyers were not going to tell him that. They were making a mint in court.
In the year 1853, Walter Hunt applied for a patent upon his sewing machine
invention, but was refused on the ground of abandonment. This is fascinating…
Judge Charles Mason, Commissioner of Patents, May, 1854
claims priority upon the ground that he invented the
Judge Charles Mason then went on to attack Elias Howe…
Elias Howe, Jr., acquired the power, by
the invention lay dormant in his hands. He held control
Walter Hunt testified, under oath, as follows…
The final court ruling was that Walter Hunt had invented the sewing machine but would not give him a patent for it as it had been on public display and hence any patent protection was automatically void.
Elias Howe Jr had won against Walter Hunt and Isaac Singer. From that point on Elias Howe got seriously wealthy but did not live long enough to enjoy it. You will have to read my version of his life it is fascinating.
Walter Hunt, in 1854, did patent parts of a sewing machine along his original design but it was all too late.
Isaac Singer, out-manoeuvred by sneaky and stubborn Elias Howe, was bitter and twisted. He tried to get out of paying Walter Hunt for his time and effort. Another row ensued but Singer was all bluff and bluster. At the time he was married to at least three women in New York (at the same time) so he was used to lying through his teeth!
To make things even worse for Walter Hunt, Isaac Singer then joined forces with the man he hated, Elias Howe, and a few others to create the artificial monopoly of the Sewing Machine Cartel. Singer had no more use for Walter Hunt and dismissed him with no further payments.
After losing in court Walter Hunt was not going to sit on his laurels, he was already onto more inventions such as automatic collar machine. Walter carried on inventing right up to his sudden death.
Years later, after many of the litigators were dead, the courts finally found in Walter Hunt's favour about the payment that Isaac Singer should have made to him. The courts made the Singer Corporation pay up for old promises. The money went to Walter Hunt's, widow, Polly and children.
There is one final twist in the tale that I just have to tell you.
I get the feeling that Walter Hunt was a nice bloke, perhaps to soft when facing giants like Elias Howe and Isaac Singer. Something I never felt from Singer while researching him or Howe. When Walter died, a well-off but not rich man he was buried in Green Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. In 1870, Polly, his long suffering wife passed and was buried next him. They have a nice memorial stone, a small pinnacle of granite.
In 1890 Elias Howe's remains were dug up and moved to the same cemetery. His monument is huge and opulent. The wealth he had gained in life continued to grow in death but then vanished! His monument casts a shadow over the very man who really invented the first American sewing machine. How ironic.
It reminds me of something my mum always said...
"Always remember the golden rule. The one with the gold makes the rules!"
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I found this article fascinating. I grew up in Lowville, New York
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