Excerpt from Pages 88-89

Published April 26, 2017


Following these decisions, Howe’s opponents turned on each other and squabbled among themselves for several years more, but Howe’s rights were established, and royalties from his licensees plus the $15,000 in damages due from Singer were beginning to build the fortune he had dreamed of. A few details remained to be settled, however, the most awkward being Bliss’s half-share of the patent, but Bliss conveniently died shortly after the conclusion of the suits, and Howe snatched his share away from the heirs before a full appreciation of its value dawned on them. Paying off all the debts he had incurred in the patent litigation took another year or so, but by 1856 the explosive growth of the sewing machine business began to swell his profits at a very encouraging rate.

In 1860 another problem arose. The fourteen-year term of his patent expired, and he needed an extension of it if the profits were to continue. Extensions are granted if the patent holder can prove that during the original term he did not receive adequate compensation for his invention in spite of making great efforts to exploit it. Adequate compensation? But Howe himself admitted that his profits had been nearly half a million dollars! A mere droplet, argued his lawyers (Howe appreciated the value of top-quality legal aid by this time). The invention, according to their calculations, had already saved the public a hundred times that much. In any case, they continued, he had a moral right to the money because of his early poverty. Out from the past, and from stage melodrama–both being intermingled in the inventor’s mind and thus impossible for us now to distinguish–came the vignettes of Howe’s hardships: cooking his own provisions in steerage on the voyages to England and back; being unable to pay the washerwoman who arrived with his wife’s clothes on the day of her departure from England; arriving in New York from England with only half a crown; reaching his wife’s bedside just in time to hear her dying words; borrowing clothes from Proctor “to make a decent appearance at the funeral.” Even though Howe was “of good habits, and temperate,” his lawyers explained, “he was poor–he wore the familiar badge of great inventors, POVERTY–a thing as inconvenient as it is respectable.” Because of his poverty, “how much of discouragement, how much of mortification, how much of sorrow, he must realize from the ingratitude which meets him at every turn, calling him visionary, foolish, and with impunity, sneering and laughing at what he worships.” Such hardships “rent a noble heart with grief and sorrow,” and also, as the lawyers well knew, effectively diverted attention from the inventor’s present affluent state. The extension was granted to 1867, and Howe’s income during the 1860s sometimes reached $4000 a week.