Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 167:
SEWING MACHINES

by John H. H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 167.

Today, some thoughts about sewing machines. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I write these radio spots on a word processor. The printer stand is my mother's old floor-model sewing machine -- made in 1905. The sewing mechanism folds down, leaving the top flat. That's where I put the printer. The paper sits on the foot treadle below, and it feeds up into the back of the printer. It's 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 like the florid art noveau design of the cast-iron stand and the grain of the walnut top -- the pretty wooden molding. I like knowing that if push came to shove I could actually sew with it.

The invention of the sewing machine was brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly, so much fabric was being produced that someone had to invent a machine to sew it all. In 1790 an Englishman named Thomas Saint patented the crude forbear 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 sews.

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. Of course, 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-stiching 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 ...

And that's what happened. Sewing machines took the country by storm. They were revolutionary. They changed American life.

When I was six, my mother had me lie down on a piece of butcher paper. She 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 on it, decked it with hair of brown yarn, and clad it in a suit of my 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 -- I remember American home life as it was so powerfully affected by these beautiful and complex old "engines -- of our ingenuity."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Cooper, G. R., The Sewing Machine: Its Invention and Development. 2nd ed., revised and expanded. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1701.




From Appleton's Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics, 1892

Wilcox-Gibbs sewing machine


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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