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A patent war anniversary

He was a journeyman machinist in poor health, whose wife was taking in sewing to help support the family.

And he wanted to make things easier for her.

So Elias Howe, Jr., of Cambridge, Massachusetts, came up with a design that was the first practical mechanized system for sewing.1

And, 174 years ago today, the United State Patent Office issued him Patent No. 4,750 for his “Improvement in Sewing-Machines.”2

Sewing machine patent

A wonderful breakthrough, right?

And — from a genealogical perspective — thoroughly boring, no?


Because this breakthrough led to 10 solid years of fighting and litigation between Howe, whose ideas were revolutionizing the industry, and the industrial giants of the sewing world — especially Isaac Merritt Singer — “an irascible fellow who lived a very colorful life; he was a bigamist who married under various names at least five women over his lifetime, fathered at least eighteen children out of wedlock, and had a violent temper that often terrorized his family members, business partners, and professional associates.”3

The first volleys were in the newspapers, as evidenced by Howe’s efforts to protect his rights:4

NY Tribune

They were answered by Singer, and often led to competing legal notices. In one April 1854 issue of the New York Times, for example, a notice entitled “Caution to the Public,” posted by Singer, was followed immediately by another entitled “Caution,” posted by Howe.5

There was a battle in the Patent Office between Howe and an inventor backed by Singer that was resolved in Howe’s favor and affirmed by the U.S. Circuit Court in Washington D.C.6

A trial in 1854 between Howe and Singer’s distributors went in Howe’s favor,7 but it surely didn’t bring peace to the sewing machine world:

Establishing the primacy of Howe’s patent, however, did not bring peace among sewing machine manufacturers. In what amounted to the first patent war, sewing machine manufacturers began suing each other for infringement of patents—hundreds of them—awarded for improvements on Howe’s machine.8

Just one case produced a whopping 3,575 pages of court filings — and the litigations all together produced more than 30,000 pages of printed testimony.9

The whole messy business didn’t end until 1856, when Howe and the industrialists got together in a licensing scheme that honored Howe’s patent rights but let the companies use the technology.10

And you thought patents were boring, didn’t you?

But like any kind of record… oh, the stories they can tell…

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Patently fascinating,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 10 Sep 2020).


  1. See “1846 – Elias Howe Jr.’s Sewing Machine Patent Model,” National Museum of American History-Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution ( : accessed 10 Sep 2020).
  2. United States Patent and Trademark Office, Patent No. 4,750 (10 Sep 1846), Elias Howe, Jr.
  3. Adam Mosoff, “The Rise and Fall of the First American Patent Thicket: The Sewing Machine War of the 1850s,” Arizona Law Review 53 (2011): 165, 179.
  4. New York Tribune, 16 Apr 1852, p. 2, col. 5;
  5. See New York Times, 14 April 1854, p. 5, col. 5;
  6. Hunt v. Howe, 12 F. Cas. 918, 922 (C.C.D.C. 1855).
  7. Howe v. Underwood, 12 F. Cas. 678, 679 (C.C.D. Mass. 1854).
  8. See Allen Pusey, “Precedents: Sept. 10, 1846: The Sewing Machine Patent War,” ABA Journal ( : accessed 10 Sep 2020).
  9. Mosoff, “The Rise and Fall of the First American Patent Thicket: The Sewing Machine War of the 1850s,” Arizona Law Review 53 : 191.
  10. See Pusey, “Precedents: Sept. 10, 1846: The Sewing Machine Patent War.” See also “1846 – Elias Howe Jr.’s Sewing Machine Patent Model.”
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