Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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HOWE, Elias, inventor, born in Spencer, Massachusetts, 9 July, 1819; died in Brooklyn, New York, 3 October, 1867. He was the son of a farmer and miller, and assisted his father in these pursuits, also attending school during the winter months. In 1835 he went to Lowell, and served for a time with a manufacturer of cotton machinery, earning but fifty cents a day. The financial panic of 1837 threw him out of employment, and he then went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was given work in the shop of Ari Davis, a Boston machinist. It was at this time that he conceived the idea of making a sewing machine, and he diligently labored upon it in spare hours after his day's work. After five years of continuous experimenting he succeeded in completing his invention in May. 1845, but not until he had received pecuniary aid from an old school fellow, George Fisher, with whom he formed a partnership. He obtained, on 10 September, 1846, a patent for the first practical sewing-machine, but in consequence of the opposition to any labor-saving machines, the artisans of Boston were unwilling to use it, and for a brief time Mr. Howe obtained employment on a railroad as an engineer until his health failed. In 1847 he visited England, hoping for success in that country, but after two years he returned to the United States, utterly destitute, after working his way home as a common sailor. While in England he disposed of his rights in that country to William Thomas, and adapted the machine to the business of corset, umbrella, and valise making. During his absence the machine had been imitated and introduced through the country regardless of his patents. Friends were now easily found who were willing to help him to establish his patent, and in 1854, after much litigation, he was successful in establishing his prior right to the invention. His prosperity was thenceforth assured, and a year later he had repurchased all of the patents that he had sold during his season of adversity. Mr. Howe then received a royalty on every sewing machine that was manufactured in the United States, and his income grew from $300 a year until it reached 8,200,000. It was estimated that up to September, 1867, the date of the expiration of the patent, he had realized about $2,000,000. In 1863 he organized a company of which he was made president, and erected a large sewing-machine factory at Bridgeport, Connecticut During the civil war he contributed largely to the support of the government, enlisting as a private soldier in the 17th Connecticut regiment, with which he served until failing health compelled his resignation, and later, when the government was pressed for funds, he advanced money to pay the regiment. Mr. Howe received numerous medals, including the gold medal of the World's fair held in Paris in 1867, where he also was given the cross of the Legion of honor.
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