Full article from 

The Journal of Domestic Appliances and Sewing Machine Gazette 1894

We deeply regret to have to announce the death of Mr. Nathaniel Wheeler, which occurred on the ist ult., at 6.30 a.m., resulting from the effects of noxious gases which escaped from a broken sewer-pipe at his residence in Bridgeport, Conn., U.S.A. Thus was closed one of the most remarkable careers in the sewing machine trade, not to mention other industries with which he was connected.

Mr. Wheeler was born in Watertown, Conn., on the 7th of September, 1820, being descended from Moses Wheeler, who emigrated from London, England, to New Haven in 1638 and, whilst a youth, learned a trade in his father's carriage factory. On attaining his majority this business was handed over to him as his own, but he soon turned his attention to other articles of commerce, such as buckles, buttons, eyelets, &c. and inventing or improving machinery for their production.

In 1848 Mr. Wheeler joined the firm which became well known as Warren, Woodruff, & Wheeler, manufacturers of suspenders, in Watertown. Whilst on a visit to New York in the interests of his firm, Mr. Wheeler saw a sewing machine made by Allen B. Wilson, in the old Sun building and realising that it had a great future, contracted with E. Lee & Co. to make 500 of them. He also engaged Mr. Wilson to go with him to Watertown and superintend the manufacture of his machine.  


This machine worked with a two-pointed shuttle and it was not until three years later that the rotary hook machine was completed and then patented. To manufacture this machine a combination was formed consisting of Messrs. Warren, Wheeler, Woodruff and Wilson, under the style of Wheeler, Wilson & Co. But although to Mr. Wilson belongs the credit of having invented the rotary hook, to Mr. Wheeler is due much credit for the successful manner in which it was introduced to the public. One of his first steps was to take the machine to O. F. Winchester, of Winchester rifle fame and try to get him to test it in his shirt factory. That gentleman, however, refused to examine the machine but after Mrs. Wilson had made a shirt on it, Mr. Winchester came round and even purchased the rights in the machine for New Haven county. Shortly afterwards J. Gardner, a large Troy shirt manufacturer, purchased for £ 600 one-half of the right to sell the machine in Rensselaer county. Mr. Wheeler continued to meet with success as the reward of intelligent industry until October, 1853, when the Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing Company was organised, with a capital of £32.000 of which amount £20.000 was purchase-money for the patents and the balance went for the factory, plant and stock. Outside parties subscribed for £14.000 of stock at par, giving notes for the stock, which notes were never cashed, as the dividends declared were sufficient to liquidate these notes as they became due. Mr. Wilson did not long remain with the company after its organisation, but continued for years to be paid a regular salary, in addition to considerable sums in respect of patent rights.

In 1856 the Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing Company removed their factory to Bridgeport, where it still stands, with a capacity of 500 per day and is fairly depicted in our illustration. As is well known, the pioneers of sewing machines attached more importance to a factory or manufacturing trade than to popularising it for the home. Mr. Wheeler, however, at an early date calculated upon a large domestic demand and has always made this a special study, whilst not neglecting any branch of the manufacturing trade. In 1856 was formed the great combination, consisting of the Singer, Wheeler & Wilson and Grover & Baker Companies, which was organised by Mr. Wheeler and had a useful career. This combination, be it said, had for its object the stoppage of litigation between its members and to license any responsible person to manufacture sewing machines on payment of a royalty of three dollars per machine.  


There is much more that might be said of this extraordinary man did space permit, not forgetting the numerous honours which have been thrust upon him both at home and abroad. As our readers well know, in 1873 he was awarded by the Emperor of Austria the Cross of Francis Joseph I. and as recently as 1889 the French Government presented him with the Cross of the Legion of Honour, with the rank of Chevalier. But Mr. Wheeler was throughout life an extremely modest man and is only known once to have worn his Austrian decoration. He found time, however, to apply himself to municipal matters and was State Senator in 1873 and 1874. It was also generally recognised that a seat in Congress or the Governorship of the State was always within his reach should he have desired the same. But Nathaniel Wheeler was essentially a commercial man and took a real pride in the sewing machines turned out by his company, which he was always seeking to improve or adapt to new branches of industry. We have previously mentioned his ingenuity as regards manufacturing plant and were we to describe all his inventions it would require lengthy space. As showing their catholicity, we might state that these included power transmitters, needle-eye polishing, wood-filling compounds, ventilators for railway cars and houses, cabinets, &c. At his death he was a director of several commercial concerns and although his speculations outside the sewing machine trade were not always successful, his wealth is computed at £ 200.000. He was a Democrat in politics and an Episcopalian in religion and although disliking mere display had a partiality for fast horses. Mr. Wheeler was twice married, his first union being with a Miss Bradley in 1842, which lasted until her death in 1857. His second wife was Miss Mary E. Crissey, who survives him. There survive two children, one Samuel H., of Chicago and a daughter, of the first and Archer Crissey and William Bishop, twins, born in 1864, of the second marriage. The deceased was borne to his last resting place in the Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, on the 3rd ult., amid universal signs of respect and we might add that on that day the whole of his company's premises in this country were closed. The pall-bearers were the following: Messrs. Dimond, Eames, Turney, Laubscher, Warner and Dial, all in the Wheeler & Wilson service and among those present were representatives of numerous societies and corporations with which Mr. Wheeler had been connected during his half century of busy commercial life.



It is generally known that it was Allen B. Wilson who invented the rotating hook machine and it might be well, since he worked so long and successfully with Mr. Wheeler, whom he preceded to the grave, to unite the two in our biography.

Mr. Wilson was born in 1827 and twenty years later we find that he is greatly exercised in the conception of a machine that was ultimately to create for itself an epoch in the history of mechanical invention. At the time a journeyman cabinet maker, the subject of our sketch laboured under the dual hardships of straitened circumstances and ill-health, from the effects of which latter he never fully recovered but, notwithstanding, he persevered and mentally elaborated his ideal of a sewing machine through the many events that transpired prior to the actual construction of the same, which did not take place till the early part of 1849. After a very trying time at Willitt, N. Y., he went in May, 1848, to work in a cotton mill at Homer and from thence, after having earned enough money to enable him so to do, he reached New York, where he obtained work as a cook on a vessel and after a little migrated to Boston but in a few weeks sought fresh work and obtained it in Pittsfield, there entering the service of Messrs. Barnes & Goodrich and working at his profession. This was in August, 1848, but so busily engaged was he that it was not until six months later that he succeeded in getting his evenings free for his own labours and, in addition, the use of his workshop. Meanwhile, he had executed drawings in extenso of his proposed invention, which, on being shown to friends, was laughed at, so he had nothing more to say until April 1st, 1849, when, having capitalized his acquired opportunities, he completed the building of his machine, which as he was not skilled in the working of metal was by no means of such finished construction as could be wished, neither did it show to the best advantage the precise " action " involved in the invention but, nevertheless, it attained the great desideratum and despite its many drawbacks it was successfully used in making garments. In the following month Mr. Wilson left Pittsfield for North Adams, Mass., where, not being aware of the existence of any sewing machine other than his own, he built a second and a more perfect one, but such was the reception he met with that he could not for some time obtain sufficient money to take out a patent, his invention being received with ridicule. He was ultimately successful, however, in securing two hundred dollars for a half-interest in the patent and this being paid by Mr. J. N. Chapin, of North Adams, he forthwith took steps to secure the patent of his machine. It cost him some four hundred dollars and a considerable amount of time to do so and it was not granted until November 12th, 1850.

Shortly after this Mr. Wilson and Mr. Chapin were both unfortunate enough to be deluded by some New York sharps into making over half the patent rights to them on the pretence that they had a right to certain parts of the invention but after a few months the falsity of the claim was fully established and the partners left free to their patent rights, which were at last taken up by a few business men, who eventually founded the Wheeler & Wilson Sewing Machine Company.

Mr. Wilson's first machine operated by means of a two-pointed shuttle and an ingenious feeding apparatus and was so arranged that the material could be pressed upon the cloth plate by a spring foot and the cloth carried in any direction either straight or curved, which, as will readily be seen, is the basis of the modern style of feed, the importance of which and the credit therefore due to Mr. Wilson for its invention, cannot be magnified. But far and away his grandest achievement was his invention of the rotating hook for his machine.

He died, we might add, on April 29th, 1888, aged 64.