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Elias Howe, Sewing Machine Inventor, Gets a Little Help From the Beatles

Elias Howe is applauded for inventing the sewing machine by none other than the Beatles.

The Beatles’ 1965 film Help! Ends with a credit:

This film is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Mr. Elias Howe, who, in 1846, invented the sewing machine.

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Image from the 1965 film, Help.

There are several explanations for why the band dedicated a musical comedy to an American inventor.

The most probable is that it was just absurdist British humor.

Others help explain Howe’s struggles inventing the machine and getting credit for it.

Elias Howe

First, a little about Elias Howe. He was born July 9, 1819, in Spencer, Mass., at a time when nearly everyone sewed by hand. Women made clothing, shirts, sheets and towels, and men knew how to repair a shirt.

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Elias Howe

He was 16 when he apprenticed in a factory in Lowell, Mass. He lost his job in the Panic of 1837, but found work in Boston in a machinist's shop. He began tinkering with a mechanical sewing machine.

Over the previous century, others had gotten patents for mechanical sewing devices, or at least designed working models: A French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, invented one in 1829, found some partners and opened a factory to mass produce uniforms for the French Army. His competition had other ideas. Two hundred French tailors rioted, ransacked the factory and threw the sewing machines out the windows.

Cannibal Dream

It was a dream that gave Howe the inspiration for his invention of the sewing machine. He dreamt he was surrounded by cannibals preparing to cook him as they waved spears. When he awoke, he remembered the spears, which had holes in the shaft and moved up and down.

He invented the machine in 1845 and got a patent for it from New Hartford, Conn., in 1846. His innovation was the lock stitch, which uses one needle with a thread that goes up and down, picking up a thread from a bobbin or shuttle on the other side of the fabric.

Which brings us to the Beatles’ movie: In it, Ringo is surrounded by cult members preparing to sacrifice him. It’s been suggested that Howe’s dream inspired the scene. That is probably a stretch.

Isaac Singer

Perhaps even more of a stretch was suggested by Sherry Ann White in a book about John Lennon. It has to do with Isaac Singer.

Elias Howe couldn’t interest anyone in his machine in the United States, so he went to England. He came home broke to Cambridge, Mass., and went to work as a journeyman machinist.

But he found Isaac Singer selling a sewing machine using his lock-stitch mechanism. Howe took Singer to court, mortgaging his father’s farm to pay lawyers.

The case set off the great sewing machine war of the mid-19th century, with sewing machine makers suing each other over patent infringement on different parts of the invention.

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Elias Howe's sewing machine

Howe won his case in 1854 and Isaac Singer had to pay him $15,000, about $400,000 in today’s money.

Isaac Singer’s business partner was a man named Edward Clark, who developed the Dakota. That’s where the Beatles reference comes in: John Lennon moved to the Dakota Apartments in 1973.

“Did John know about his sewing machine message and the building of the Dakota eight years before he moved into the Dakota?” wrote White. “I believe he did.”

We said it was a stretch.

You're a Rich Man

Two years after winning his case, Elias Howe joined with Isaac Singer and others to pool their patents and sell sewing machines around the world.

Howe received $5 for every machine sold in the United States and $1 for every machine sold overseas. That added up to $2 million, or about $400 million today.

He donated some of his wealth to buy equipment for the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army during the Civil War. Howe enlisted in the regiment as a private, though he was 42 years old and in ill health.

Howe built a sewing machine factory in Bridgeport, Conn. He died in 1867 of gout and a massive blood clot. A statue of him now stands in Bridgeport’s Seaside Park, which was created from his regiment’s training ground.

 

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