Walter Hunt was born in rural Martinsburg, New York, on July 29, 1796. The nearby town of Lowville was the site of a textile mill where Hunt’s family worked. Hunt, adept at providing mechanical solutions to difficult problems, worked with the mill owner, Willis Hoskins, inventing and patenting improvements to the flax spinner in 1826. He traveled to New York City to raise capital for manufacturing the device. Hunt supported his family in New York by speculating in real estate, but his love of creativity was paramount.
From 1829 to 1853 his inventions and patents included a knife sharpener, a rope making machine, a heating stove, a wood saw, a flexible spring, several machines for making nails, inkwells, a fountain pen, a bottle stopper, firearms and a safety pin.
In 1833, Hunt invented a sewing machine that used a lockstitch, but failed to patent it. The lockstitch used two threads, one passing through a loop in the other and then both interlocking. This was the first time an inventor had not mimicked a hand stitch.
As Joseph N. Kane writes in Necessity’s Child: The Story of Walter Hunt, America’s Forgotten Inventor, “With nothing to serve as a basis or model, with no other machine from which parts could be obtained, he evolved a plan for mechanical sewing which was so revolutionary that had he even dared to suggest it before completion of his model he would have been scoffed at and regarded as insane”.
Ten years later, manufacturers searched for ways to mechanize sewing and inventors turned their energies to patenting improvements to sewing machines. On May 27, 1846, Elias Howe Jr. received Patent US 4.750 for improvements to the sewing machine, claiming to have created the first machine to sew a lockstitch using two threads. When Howe began to sue manufacturers for royalties, Hunt’s previous work emerged as attorneys argued that Hunt’s invention preceded Howe’s and therefore Howe’s patent claims were invalid.
On April 2, 1853, Hunt submitted his application for his 1834 sewing machine, as his invention preceded Howe’s machine. The Patent Office recognized Hunt’s precedence but it did not grant a patent to Hunt because he had not applied for one prior to Howe’s application. Hunt received public credit for his invention, but Howe’s patent remained valid because of a technicality.
Later, Hunt was granted a patent for other improvements on the sewing machine. In Hunt’s patent specification for Patent US 11.161, issued on June 27, 1854, he claimed:
“Said improvements consist in the manner of feeding in of the cloth and regulating the length of the stitch solely by the vibrating motion of the needle; in a rotary table or platform, upon which the cloth is placed for sewing; in guides and gages for controlling the line of the seam”.
Hunt noted that other sewing machines would jam because the material had to be pushed through the vibrating needle. He created a round rotating top that allowed the cloth to be fed through the needle at an even rate, eliminating the problem of jamming. As in the past, Hunt simply sold off the rights to the machine to others and did not capitalize on it, but he did prove that he had the mechanical ability and the creativity to improve upon the sewing machine.
Hunt continued to invent and patent devices until his death in 1859. Several were patented: shirt collars, a reversible metallic heel for shoes, lamp improvements and a new method for manufacturing shirt fronts, collars and cuffs. Walter Hunt’s inventive nature was captured in the New York Tribune, which wrote at his death, “For more than forty years, he has been known as an experimenter in the arts. Whether in mechanical movements, chemistry, electricity or metallic compositions, he was always at home and, probably in all, he has tried more experiments than any other inventor”.
Gift of Clinton N. Hunt in honor of the Hunt Family