Today, a black immigrant provides shoes for
America. 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.
Jan Matzeliger lived less
than 37 years. Most of them were lonely ones. He
was born in Dutch Guiana in 1852. His father was a
white engineer -- his mother, a black slave. As a
boy, he apprenticed in a machine shop.
Quiet and fiercely intelligent, Matzeliger put to
sea in a merchant ship when he was 19. His travels
took him at last to Lynn, Massachusetts. There he
worked as a shoe-stitching-machine operator.
He had tough going. Not only was he black, but his
native tongue was Dutch. The Catholic, Unitarian,
and Episcopal churches gave him a cold shoulder. So
he took up residence inside his own head. He read
and studied. He also thought about the most
difficult step in making shoes.
First you sewed the shoe top together. Next you
shaped the top over a wooden model of a human foot,
called a last. Then you sewed the top to the inner
sole. It took great skill to bend, shape, and hold
the leather top while you stitched it to the
bottom. The shoe machine people had invested huge
sums in trying to mechanize that step. They'd
Matzeliger knew he could solve the problem. He
began creating a working model. He scrounged parts
and went without food so he could pay for
materials. All this on top of ten-hour work days!
It took five years, but by 1882 he'd filed a
patent. It was a huge, complex, 15-page document.
Two businessmen funded the prototype in exchange
for two thirds of any profits. By 1885, Matzeliger
had a production model ready. At that point, he
sold out for $15,000. He went on to new inventions
while others got rich on his genius.
Matzeliger's last five years were happy ones. He'd
gained membership in the North Congregational
Church. He'd gained friends. He taught Sunday
school, and he taught oil painting. He also poured
out his inventive genius on new machines. Meanwhile
he'd cut the cost of making shoes in two.
When tuberculosis claimed him, his will left a big
piece of his fortunes to the Church that'd seen
beyond the color of his skin. He made special
provisions for his drawing instruments, his Bible,
and his technical books -- the things that'd really
mattered to him.
In 1984, Lynn, Massachusetts, finally named a
bridge after this good and quiet man who'd done so
much for the city -- who'd done so much for all
America. Finally they honored this triumph of the
mind -- against all odds.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds