Isaac Merrit Singer

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Isaac Merrit Singer


American Inventor

Isaac Singer was an American inventor, who is best known for making the mechanical sewing machine much more practical and useful. In addition to the sewing machine, he developed a rock-drilling machine, a metal- and wood-carving machine, and more. As a businessman, Singer also introduced several innovations that were to have a significant effect on consumer sales and marketing.

Singer, a native of Pittstown, New York, worked with machines and inventions from an early age. Apprenticed to a machinist in his teens, Singer invented a rock-drilling machine at the age of 28 and a machine for carving metal and wood at 38. Two years later, working for a customer in Boston, Singer saw his first sewing machine. Within two weeks he had not only repaired the broken machine but had designed a vastly improved version that he patented and sold through his own company.

Singer did not actually invent the sewing machine. That distinction instead belongs to France's Barthélemy Thimonnier. In fact, two other Americans had produced sewing machines before Singer. The first, Walter Hunt, failed to patent his machine, which contained many important features. The second, Elias Howe, however, did patent his sewing machine. Howe's machine incorporated an eye-pointed needle (a needle in which the eye is in the point of the needle rather than in the opposite end) that created an interlocking stitch with a second thread on a shuttle on the other side. Singer's, however, was the first sewing machine also to incorporate an overhanging arm containing the needle, which allowed virtually any part of the fabric to be sewn in nearly any orientation.

Singer became embroiled in a patent infringement suit with Howe almost immediately but, not wanting to wait for resolution through the courts, began manufacturing sewing machines anyway. Despite losing the suit, he filed patents for a dozen other innovations and was able to continue building his machines. By 1860 Singer's company was the world's largest manufacturer of sewing machines.

Singer continued to improve the sewing machine for the next few years, in particular working on ways to power the machines better. The first machines were powered by a hand crank, but this forced tailors to work with only one hand. Inventing the foot treadle freed both hands for sewing and was considered a great improvement.

Singer turned out to be as innovative in business as with machinery. He was among the first manufacturers to use the concept of installment payment plans for purchasing items, giving his company increased sales while placing relatively expensive pieces of equipment within the financial reach of many more families and small businesses. This move had a profound impact on the consumer-sales sector that continues to this day.

That modern industrial sewing machines—and most home machines too—continue to display the same fundamental features as Singer's original models is a tribute to his design. Specifically, the eye-pointed needle, interlocking stitches, the overhanging arm, and foot or (knee) controls are all standard features on most of the world's sewing machines to this day.

Singer's first company, I.M. Singer & Company, was superseded by the Singer Manufacturing Company, which was owned by Singer and his partner, Edward Clark. Shortly afterwards, Singer retired to England, where he lived until his death in 1875 at the age of 63. His company survived for another 113 years, pioneering such innovations as the first electric-powered sewing machine (1885) and the first mass-produced sewing machine (1910). Sewing machines with the Singer brand name continue to be produced under a different parent company.