Excerpt from Pages 32-33Published April 20, 2017
DRAGGED INTO THE FIGHT
One day in July 1850, as Walter Hunt was talking with a group of men in Dunlap’s Hotel in New York, his friend Smith Gardner introduced him to a stranger named Howe. Howe, explained Gardner, was the inventor of the sewing machine. No, Howe corrected him, actually his brother Elias invented it; his own name was Amasa. “After a little reflection,” recalled Howe, “Mr. Hunt observed that my brother was not the original inventor, that he himself was the original inventor.” When did he invent it? asked Gardner. “Near twenty or thirty years ago, I can’t tell which,” replied Hunt. “I asked why he abandoned it if it worked well,” continued Gardner; “He said he had worked over it some time. . . and that he had an offer for it and he sold it or gave it away.” Howe pressed him for more details, but Hunt was vague: “I asked him what had become of the machine; he said he could not tell. He thought that the machine was destroyed or broken up, but if there were any remains of it left, I could find them at Mr. George A. Arrowsmith’s, who could give me more information about the machine than he could.” Until Gardner brought up the subject, said Hunt, he had entirely forgotten the whole matter. His manner suggested that for him, inventing a sewing machine was a trivial exercise like doing a crossword puzzle.
Actually Hunt had not quite forgotten the machine. Between 1848 and 1850, in addition to his shop for making inventions, he had an office on Wall Street where he and some associates made drawings, specifications, and models for patentees, and obtained patents for them. He was thus in a good position to take out a patent on the sewing machine for Arrowsmith, and several times urged Arrowsmith to advance some money so that he could develop it and take out the papers. Otherwise, he warned, “those ingenious Yankees might get at it and procure a patent for it.” But Arrowsmith procrastinated, saying he could not afford the expense. “I subsequently came in possession of means to prosecute the business,” he explained, “but a little previous to that, I heard there had been a patent taken out, and I thought it would be a hopeless case to contend against wind and tide, as the man had got a patent. I therefore let it rest. . . .” Did he know that the patent described a machine similar to Hunt’s? No, said Arrowsmith. “All that I knew about it was, that there was a sewing machine somewhere in Broadway, and I think Carlock told me so.” Amasa Howe was startled to hear Hunt’s story, and sent for his brother Elias. Elias, it seems, had known about Hunt’s machine earlier, but they became worried about Hunt’s potential threat to the Howe patent, and they went to his office and asked more questions. But Hunt remained vague and indifferent, and they decided that they had little to fear from him.
TALES OF NEGLECTED GENIUS
By 1850 there were many stories in circulation that sounded much like Hunt’s–of neglected geniuses who had invented sewing machines many years previous to Howe’s 1846 patent, but who for one reason or another were robbed of the fruits of their efforts. In this category are the accounts of the Reverend John Adam Dodge–or was it two men, Adams and Dodge? or perhaps, as other versions have it, the Reverend Dodge, assisted by ingenious mechanic John Knowles?–who in 1818 or 1819 invented a sewing machine in Monkton, Vermont. For reasons unknown, but easily surmised in view of the difficulty of building a satisfactory machine, nothing was heard of the efforts in Vermont until after other sewing machines were in general use.
There was also a sewing machine supposedly invented by the Reverend Francis R. Goulding of Augusta, Georgia. The legend of Goulding’s invention exhibits the quickening effect of regional pride and wishful thinking on a few seeds of fact. In the History of the Midway Congregational Church by a Georgia man named Stacy, Dr. Goulding was praised mainly as the author of The Young Marooners (it “will render his name immortal”), but he was also given credit as the “first inventor of the sewing machine.” Another Georgia author named Northen, in Men of Mark in Georgia, goes into more detail: “Of an inventive turn of mind, in 1842 he built a sewing machine a year or two before Howe’s great invention was patented, but having no mercenary motives, he did not take the trouble to patent it.” The humorist Joel Chandler Harris adds that “he invented the sewing machine for the purpose of lightening the labors of his wife, and she used it for some years before another genius invented it, or some traveler stole the idea and improved on it.” Walter A. Clark, while doing research for A Lost Arcadia, made a collection of variant accounts:
First, the inventor’s trip to Washington, D.C., in the interest of his patent, was delayed by flooded streams, and a rival claiming the same mechanical principle, in this way, reached the patent office in advance of him.
Second, on the aforementioned trip, the stage was overturned, and, in the confusion incident thereto, the model was stolen and never recovered.