The Robinson Library >> Technology >> Mechanical Engineering and Machinery >> Sewing Machines
Isaac SingerIsaac Singer

inventor of the first commercially successful sewing machine

Isaac Merritt Singer was born in Pittstown, New York, on October 27, 1811, the youngest son of Adam Singer and his first wife. His parents divorced when he was ten; his father remarried, but Isaac did not get along with his stepmother, so at twelve he went to live with an older brother in Oswego, New York, where he worked in his brother's machine shop.

In 1830, Singer married Catharine Maria Haley, with whom he had two children -- William (1834) and Lillian (1837). It is believed that the couple initially lived in New York City, but by the summer of 1833 he was working at a machine shop in Otsego County, New York.

Exactly when Singer was bitten by the acting bug is unknown, but by 1836 he was performing with a traveling theater group. While performing in Baltimore, Singer met Mary Ann Sponsler, with whom he had a son, Isaac, in 1837.

In 1839, Singer obtained his first patent, for a machine to drill rock, selling it for $2,000 to the I&M Canal Building Company. Singer used the money to found his own acting troupe, the Merritt Players, which included Mary Ann. Because he was still legally married to Catharine, Singer entered into a "common-law" marriage with Mary Ann, who would subsequently bear him nine more children. The troupe toured the country until Singer's money ran out, which happened in Fredericksburg, Ohio.

Singer was working in a Fredericksburg print shop when he conceived the idea for a machine to cut wood blocks for printing images. By 1849 he was in New York City, where he built a prototype for his machine and obtained a patent. After the prototype was destroyed in a fire, Singer was invited to recreate it in a Boston machine shop. It was there that Singer first began tinkering with Lerow & Blodgett sewing machines.

drawing from Singer's sewing machine patentSinger's cutting machine was not a success, but his ideas for improving the sewing machine were. Singer's version of the sewing machine had a needle that moved up and down instead of side to side, which made the needle less susceptible to breakage. The first sewing machine to allow continuous and curved stitching, it also had an overhanging arm that held the needle bar over a horizontal table, which made it possible to sew on any part of the work. Motion was communicated to the needle arm and shuttle by means of gears. Patent #8294 was issued on August 12, 1851, and Singer formed the Jenny Lind Sewing Machine Company (later renamed I.M. Singer & Co.) with two partners soon after. Priced at over $100, the machine proved far too expensive for the average American household, however, and sales were initially lackluster.

left: drawing from Singer's sewing machine patent

Despite the initial bad sales, Singer knew his machine was far better than any competitor's so he literally took it on tour. His company employed traveling salesmen and introduced installment payments, which brought his machine within reach of the poor. Singer himself used his acting abilities to theatrically demonstrate his machine's abilities at county fairs and circuses, often accompanied by a pretty woman who would alternately dance and demonstrate the machine.

Although early total sewing machine production and profit margins remained modest, Singer saw the real potential in transferring Samuel Colt's hand-gun manufacturing techniques to the production of Singer sewing machines and decided to invest heavily in machinery designed to mass-produce sewing machines with interchangeable parts. In late 1857, Singer opened the world's first mass production facility for something other than firearms in New York, and he was soon able to cut production costs to a little more than $10 per machine. Singer sold his new machines for 50% less than his first, while increasing his profit margin to 530% per machine. In 1858, Singer opened three more New York-based manufacturing plants and unit sales topped 3,000 per year.

By 1860 Singer was a very wealthy man, but his personal life was about to go into turmoil. He divorced wife Catharine that year (for, ironically, adultery on her part), but was also cheating on Mary Ann with Mary Eastwood Walters, who bore him a daughter, Alice, as well as Mary McGonigal Matthews, who had by then borne him five children. When Mary Ann learned of the affairs, she had Singer arrested for bigamy. As soon as he was released on bail, Singer and Matthews sailed for Europe, where he remained for the rest of his life. On June 13, 1865, he married Isobelle Eugenie Boyce Summerville, who bore him six children; this marriage endured for the rest of his life.

In 1863 Singer and his business partner Edward Clark incorporated the Singer Manufacturing Company, holding 22 patents with capital assets of $550,000. With the opening of the first foreign factory, near Glasgow in 1867, the company became a world-wide success.

A similar machine had been patented by the American inventor Elias Howe in 1846. Howe brought suit against Singer for patent infringement and won, forcing Singer to pay royalties. Singer continued his efforts, however, and by 1860 he had become the largest manufacturer of sewing machines in the world. His basic design features have been followed in almost all subsequent machines.

Isaac Singer died in Devon, England, on July 23, 1875, and was buried in Torquay. In his will, he acknowledged 22 children, many of whom ended fighting over his estate.

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This page was last updated on March 23, 2017.