Singer, Isaac Merrit

views updated May 17 2018

Singer, Isaac Merrit

Singer Manufacturing Company


Isaac Merrit Singer revolutionized home sewing when he developed the first practical domestic sewing machine. In partnership with Edward Clark, Singer founded the largest manufacturer of sewing machines in the world. He also pioneered consumer credit plans, which later became a common practice by manufacturers and retailers in order to boost their sales.

Personal Life

Isaac Merrit Singer was born October 27, 1811, in Pittstown, New York. He was the son of German immigrants Adam Reisinger, a millwright and farmer, and his wife Ruth. Singer was raised in Cherry Valley, New York, where he attended public schools until the age of 12. At that time he ran away from home. He settled in Rochester, New York, where he worked as an apprentice in a machine shop. Between the ages of 19 and 39, Singer worked as an itinerant actor, mechanic, and cabinetmaker. He occasionally adopted the names Merrit and Matthews in addition to his real surname.

An Episcopalian, Singer loved music and was known for his energy and sunny disposition. He reportedly had five wives and fathered 24 children. Two of the children died in infancy, while one, Adam Mortimer, grew up to be knighted by the British crown.

After leaving from the sewing machine business in 1864, Singer retired to Paris. In 1870, he moved to England on the recommendation of his old business partner Edward Clark. There he took up residence in a custom-built palace on the English coast known as the Wigwam. He died in Torquay in Devonshire on July 23, 1875.

Career Details

Singer began inventing things at an early age. One of his first important inventions was a rock-boring machine, which he dreamed up while living in Lockport, Illinois, in 1839. On May 16 of that year he received his first patent for this device, known as an excavator. In need of money, Singer promptly sold this patent for $2,000 and returned to acting. For the next few years he was the leader of The Merrit Players, a troupe of wandering actors which included his wife and family. The troupe played in churches and halls across the country but was constantly plagued by money troubles and eventually went bankrupt.

In 1849, Singer's troupe became stranded in Fredericksburg, Ohio. He took a job in a local sawmill and quickly went to work designing a machine to carve wood and metal. Singer tried to get his new device manufactured but met with little success. Finally, a company in New York City agreed to produce the machine, but a freak explosion destroyed the prototype shortly after its completion. Singer was destitute and out of a job, so he moved to Boston and took a job in a machine shop.

In 1850, Singer got a chance to study a sewing machine close up when one was brought into the machine shop for repairs. He was amazed at how clunky the device was and irritated by how frequently it needed fixing. He required only 12 hours to design a new, improved device that employed a straight needle, horizontal table, and rotating feed mechanism. He then needed to have his new sewing machine built. This time he took matters into his own hands. He borrowed $40 from a friend and spent the next 11 days constructing the world's first straight needle, perpendicular action sewing machine.

Singer's machine was powered by a foot treadle, with a vertical presser to hold the material in place while the operator stitched. For the first time, a user could enjoy continuous sewing along straight lines and curves, and begin sewing at any point on the fabric. However, what worked in theory at first failed in practice, as the prototype machine would not work properly. Even the workers who had assisted Singer in building the device declared it a failure. But Singer discovered a flaw in the construction and rectified it immediately. He eventually had a perfectly working prototype.

Together with two partners, Singer formed Singer, Phelps, & Co. in 1851 to manufacture the sewing machine. Originally based in Boston, the company moved to New York the following year. When his partners backed out, Singer renamed the business I.M. Singer & Co. In time, Singer adapted his device to work on leather and upholstery in addition to clothing. This innovation spurred the company on to even greater growth. From 1852 to 1954, Singer was granted three separate patents for various parts of his new machine.

Other parts of Singer's machine already had patents, however, which belonged to Elias Howe. Both the needle and the lockstitch Singer employed had been invented and registered with the government by Howe in 1846. In 1853, Howe sued Singer for $25,000 in damages for infringing on these patents. Singer contested Howe's suit but lost his case in federal court in 1854. The court ordered Singer to purchase a license from Howe and compensate him $15,000 in royalties.

Ill will from the lawsuit did not stop Singer and Howe from joining forces in 1856 to form an industrial trust with the other major sewing machine manufacturers. This powerful combination granted licenses to all other manufacturers and charged them a $15 royalty on each machine they produced. While this arrangement helped stifle competition, the individuals who made up the trust continued to make and market their own machines. By 1860, Singer headed the largest company of them all, in partnership with his attorney, Edward Clark.

In charge of advertising and marketing, Clark helped Singer innovate in these areas as well. He introduced traveling salesmen, installment purchases, and special trade-in allowances. Clark and Singer also hit upon the idea of destroying any trade-ins they received to eliminate the second-hand market. Meanwhile, Singer continued to make improvements to his machine. All told, he received a total of 20 patents on his sewing machine.

In 1864, Singer incorporated his company, which from then on was known as the Singer Manufacturing Company. Singer retained 40 percent of the stock and retired to England. He kept his stake in the company until his death in 1875. He left a fortune worth $13 million to various heirs.

Social and Economic Impact

Isaac Merrit Singer's sewing machine not only revolutionized home sewing, but also helped to usher in a major new industry. Before Singer's invention, there was no industrialized system for the production of clothes. All garments were made by hand. With the introduction of Singer's machine, 900 stitches could be produced per minute, a vast improvement over the 30 to 40 that a hand sewer could provide.

While the practicality of Singer's machines helped make them popular, his success was also the product of innovative marketing. He was one of the first businessmen to understand the power of advertising. Singer's use of an installment credit plan, the first of its kind, allowed him to sell his machines at a very high price for the time, around $75. He also initiated the practice of providing service with sales, a policy that is still used today. By the 1860s, these strategies had helped the Singer Manufacturing Company become the world's leading manufacturer of sewing machines.

Chronology: Isaac Merrit Singer

1811: Born.

1823: Left home.

1839: Received first patent for a rock-boring machine.

1849: Invented a wood carver.

1850: Invented a new sewing machine.

1851: Formed sewing machine company.

1856: Lost patent infringement case to Elias Howe.

1864: Incorporated company.

1864: Retired.

1875: Died.

By the 1990s, Singer sewing machines were still one of the leading brands in the industry. State-of-the-art computerized models commanded prices up to $3,500. The Singer Company branched out from its core business to produce vacuum and carpet cleaners as well. The company still employs a unique service center that repairs and restores old-fashioned models for antique enthusiasts. Surprisingly, in this age of advanced technology, many factories and home users still employ these old machines to create new garments.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Singer Manufacturing Company
2 Chinachem Plz., 26th Fl. 68 Connaught Rd.
Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Business Phone: (905)475-8607


Fucini, Joseph J. Entrepreneurs. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1985.

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Van Doren, Charles, ed. Webster's American Biographies. Springfield, MA: Merriam Webster Company, 1979.

World of Invention. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.

Singer, Isaac Merrit

views updated May 11 2018


In 1851 Isaac Singer (18111875), invented the first modern mass-produced sewing machine with an overhanging arm; this machine made it possible to sew any part of a garment. He also patented the foot treadle and the spring-equipped presser for holding down fabric while sewing with both hands.

Though people have been sewing for the last 20,000 yearsjoining pieces of material using bone needles, awls, and animal sinews for thread, or using iron needles which began in the fourteen centuryit was not until the eighteenth century, when mechanical sewing machines were invented, that sewing and the textile industry could grow into one of the largest and most basic industries in the world.

Arguably, it was Isaac Singer who brought sewing out of the dark ages of crude stitching into the modern industrial age of mass-produced clothing and upholstered furniture. The French were the first to manufacture the sewing machine and used it to speed up the production of army uniforms in 1841. However, the innovations that Singer made in 1851 while repairing a clumsy Lerow and Blodgett sewing machine brought about what is now regarded as the first truly modern and mass-produced commercial and domestic sewing machine in the United States. This sewing machine, the Singer Sewing Machine, has been known to U.S. households for generations.

Isaac Singer left home at age 12 to work for the next seven years at a variety of unskilled jobs. He had little formal education but much real-life experience. At age 19 he took a job for a few months as an apprentice, but he left this shortly and began a 9-year period of wandering from state to state. He earned a living by mostly relying on his mechanical cleverness and experience. A lover of music and theatrics, as well, Singer spent part of his early adulthood as an actor, traveling the country with a theatrical troupe known as the Merritt Players. Plagued by money problems, the group eventually disbanded, leaving Singer destitute.

Singer officially became an inventor at age 28, while working in Illinois. He obtained his first patent from the government in 1839 for a rock-drilling machine. Singer, however, quickly spent the money he made from that invention; he also sold the patent rights and left himself with nothing. Ten years later, at age 38, he patented a wood and metal-carving machine. He then obtained financing to build a small factory in order to produce this device. Life and business were looking up for Singer, but then a boiler explosion occurred in the factory, destroying it. And again Singer was left penniless.

In Boston two years later, while working in a machine shop repairing a sewing machine, Singer again tried his hand at inventing. His employer told him that if he could make a practical, reliable, and mass-producable sewing machine, his fortune would be made. Within a few hours Singer drew a sketch of a new kind of sewing machine, and he built a prototype within 11 days.

Singer immediately applied for a patent on this machine, which he received on August 12, 1851. He then organized what became I. M. Singer and Company and began manufacturing sewing machines. Though he had some competition in the market, the fact that his machine could perform continuous stitching, put it in great demand almost immediately.

Singer fought off law suits from other sewing machine manufacturers, but he had achieved success. By 1854, despite losing some of the law suits, his company had reached and retained a commanding position in the industry. Singer created improvements on his original design and attached the improvements to his original patent, creating what is called a pooling of patents, where many patented ideas are brought together into a kind of giant and complicated product patent, making it difficult to steal.

Singer's greatest service to the consumer, both in the home and in industry, was that he had developed the first domestic sewing machine brought into general use. He made his machines available to many people by creating a time-payment program for buyers, possibly the first such program in U.S. business. Singer also aggressively fought the psychological barrier to mass consumer sales of sewing machinesthe false belief that women of his era could not operate complicated machinery. Singer provided many demonstrations to manufacturers that anyone could use his sewing machine with a little training. Clearly the development of Singer's practical sewing machines and the ease with which they could be used contributed to the growth of the ready-made clothing industry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Moreover, Singer contributed to the enhanced general employment of women.

Singer retired at age 51, a multi-millionaire. He lived a flamboyant life-style in New York City and throughout Europe, and left an estate of $13 million at his death in 1875.


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Brandon, Ruth. Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance. New York: Lippincott, 1977.

Cooper, Grace R. The Sewing Machine: Its Invention and Early Development. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1998, s.v. "Isaac M. Singer."

Fucini, Joseph J. Entrepreneurs. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1985.

Singer, Isaac Merrit

views updated May 23 2018

Singer, Isaac Merrit (1811–75) US manufacturer, inventor of a rock drill (1839) and of a single-thread sewing machine (1852). Singer's machine allowed continuous and curved stitching.

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