Today, Jan Matzeliger in 1924. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Jan Matzeliger, the black
inventor of the automatic shoe-lasting machine, was
rediscovered during the 1980s. In 1991 he was even
honored on a U.S. postage stamp. For a century
after his death in 1889, however, he'd been all but
forgotten. So I was surprised last week to find an
entire section on Matzeliger in a 1924 book on
The '20s were a bad time in American race
relations. Opportunities for our black citizens had
been closing down since the Civil War. The Ku Klux
Klan functioned openly, lynching was common, Jim
Crow ever-present. Matzeliger, born in Dutch Guyana
in 1852, was the son of a Dutch engineer and a
black mother. This old book says that he had a
brown complexion, crinkly hair, and a native
As a boy, he apprenticed in a machine shop, and at
19 he set off for America as a merchant seaman. He
found work in the Harney Brothers' shoe factory in
Lynn, Massachusetts, as a shoe-stitching-machine
operator. It was a tough life. He was isolated not
only by his race, but by his native Dutch tongue as
well. He lodged above the West Lynn Mission, and he
joined the Congregational Church, the only church
to welcome him despite his race. Quiet and fiercely
intelligent, he lived a lonely life, reading and
He also thought about the hardest step in making a
shoe: First you sew up the top of the shoe; next
you shape it over a wooden model of a human foot
called a last; then you sew it to the
inner sole. It took great skill to bend, shape, and
hold the leather top while you stitched it to the
bottom. Shoe manufacturers had spent huge sums
trying to mechanize that step, and they'd failed.
Matzeliger knew he could solve the
problem. He began creating a working model,
scrounging parts and going without food so he could
pay for materials, all on top of ten-hour workdays!
It took years, but in 1882 he filed a patent -- a
huge, complex, 15-page document. Naturally, he
earned the wrath of the shoe lasters, who saw
themselves as the aristocrats of the shoemaking
Lynn businessmen funded a prototype in exchange for
two thirds of any profits. By 1885, Matzeliger had
a production model ready, but he'd also contracted
tuberculosis. He sold out for $15,000. The machine
went on to cut the cost of shoes by fifty percent.
He died four years later, but in those last years
he found friends in his church. He taught Sunday
school, he taught oil painting, and he kept
inventing. He left his money to the church that'd
seen through the color of his skin. His will also
bequeathed those small possessions that'd been
central to his life: his drawing instruments, his
Bible, and his technical books.
In 1985, the city of Lynn named a bridge on Fayette
Street after good and quiet Jan Matzeliger -- small
enough recompense for the person who'd done
something so fundamentally essential as putting
affordable shoes on America's feet.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A Popular History of American Invention,
(Waldemar Kaempffert, ed.) New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1924. pp. 429-433.
Karwatka, D., Against All Odds. American
Heritage of Invention & Technology, Vol.
6, No. 3, Winter 1991, pp. 50-55.
I am grateful to Diane Shephard of the Lynn Museum, Lynn,
Massachusetts, for her very helpful counsel and for
This is a greatly reworked version of Episode 522.
From A Popular History of American
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.