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History and development Woman using a treadle sewing machine manufactured by Singer.
In 1790 English inventor Thomas Saint was the first to patent a design for a sewing machine but he did not advertise his invention. It was meant for leather and canvas. It is likely that Saint had a working model but there is no evidence of one; he was a skilled cabinet maker and included many practically functional features: an overhanging arm, a feed mechanism (adequate for short lengths of leather), a vertical needle bar, and a looper. (In 1874 a sewing machine manufacturer, William Newton Wilson, found Saint's drawings in the London Patent Office, made adjustments to the looper, and built a working machine, currently owned by the London Science Museum.)
An Austrian tailor Josef Madersperger began developing the first sewing machine in 1807. He presented the first working machine in 1814. In 1830 Barthélemy Thimonnier, a French tailor, patented a sewing machine that sewed straight seams using chain stitch. By 1841, Thimonnier had a factory of 80 machines sewing uniforms for the French Army. The factory was destroyed by rioting French tailors afraid of losing their livelihood. Thimonnier had no further success with his machine.
The first American lockstitch sewing machine was invented by Walter Hunt in 1832. His machine used an eye-pointed needle (with the eye and the point on the same end) carrying the upper thread and a falling shuttle carrying the lower thread. The curved needle moved through the fabric horizontally, leaving the loop as it withdrew. The shuttle passed through the loop, interlocking the thread. The feed let the machine down, requiring the machine to be stopped frequently and reset up. Hunt eventually lost interest in his machine and sold it without bothering to patent it.
In 1842, John Greenough patented the first sewing machine in the United States. Elias Howe, born in Spencer, Massachusetts, created his sewing machine in 1845, using a similar method to Hunt's, except the fabric was held vertically. The major improvement he made was to have the needle running away from the point, starting from the eye. After a lengthy stint in England trying to attract interest in his machine he returned to America to find various people infringing his patent, among them Isaac Merritt Singer. He eventually won a case against patent infringement in 1854 and was awarded the right to claim royalties from the manufacturers using ideas covered by his patent, including Singer.
Trained as an engineer, Singer saw a rotary sewing machine being repaired in a Boston shop. He thought it to be clumsy and promptly set out to design a better one. His machine used a falling shuttle instead of a rotary one; the needle was mounted vertically and included a presser foot to hold the cloth in place. It had a fixed arm to hold the needle and included a basic tensioning system. This machine combined elements of Thimonnier's, Hunt's, and Howe's machines. He was granted an American patent in 1851 and it was suggested he patent the foot pedal (or treadle) used to power some of his machines; however, it had been in use for too long for a patent to be issued. When Howe learned of Singer's machine he took him to court. Howe won and Singer was forced to pay a lump sum for all machines already produced. Singer then took out a license under Howe's patent and paid him $1.15 per machine. Singer then entered a joint partnership with a lawyer named Edward Clark. They established the first hire-purchase scheme to allow people to buy their machines through payments over time.