Room 11


extract from:

New England manufacturers and manufactories

Three hundred and fifty of the leading manufacturers of New England

Vol. 2

by J.D. Van Slyck


Of the numerous inventions which have benefited mankind, a few stand out in especial prominence. Such was the invention of movable types and the printing-press; of the steam-engine and its application to machinery and to transportation by water or on land; of the magnetic telegraph; of the machinery which supplanted the hand-card, the spinning-wheel and the hand-loom and so greatly diminished the drudgery of domestic labor. With the latter may be classed the invention of a practical sewing machine, adapted alike to family and to manufacturing purposes. The need and the possibility of such a machine presented themselves early in this century to many mechanics and, between 1830 and 1850, several patents for sewing machines were granted in England and in the United States. No one of these patents, however, fully covered a practical and useful sewing machine. The first patent for such a machine was granted Nov. 12, 1850, to Allen B. Wilson, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Allen B. Wilson was born in the obscure town of Willett, Cortland County, N.Y., October 18, 1824. His father was a mill-wright and was killed by an accident which occurred while he was putting in a water-wheel. He left a wife and three young children, two of them being girls. Mrs. Wilson, a self-reliant woman, managed to keep her little family together until they were able to do something toward earning their own livelihood. Allen was indentured, at eleven years of age, as an apprentice to a neighboring farmer, who was also a carpenter, with whom he remained about a year. From that time until he was sixteen years of age, he worked on farms; using his leisure time, however, in taking advantage of the opportunity offered him in a neighboring blacksmith’s shop, to study mechanics. In this shop he forged various tools for his own use. When fifteen years of age he built a small work-shop, in which he made and put up a lathe for turning wood and constructed water-wheels and saw-mills, which he set in operation at the little water-falls of a neighboring mountain stream. He also made apple-parers and other useful or amusing contrivances. At sixteen he was apprenticed to a distant relative, a cabinet-maker, residing at Cincinnatus, in the same county. His industry and mechanical aptitude soon made him a superior workman. He was sent with a team, on one occasion, to a neighboring town. A delay of several hours enabled him to drive to Aurora, eighteen miles away, where he wished to examine a steam-engine, the first he had ever seen. It was in a small steamboat, which plied on Cayuga Lake. His employer found fault with this action and so young Wilson, packing up his worldly effects, started to seek a new field of labor. He obtained work at his trade and continued at it until early in 1847, at which time he was at Adrian, Michigan, in the capacity of a journeyman. He then conceived the idea of a sewing-machine, never having heard of one and settled in his own mind the devices and adjustments to accomplish the various processes and the arrangement of the several parts. But he did not then do anything toward the completion of his design. As has been said, attempts had already been made to devise such a machine.


The earliest sewing machine of which there is record is that of Thomas Saint, patented in England, in 1790. It had an overhanging arm, on the end of which was a vertically reciprocating straight needle. Instead of the eye there was a notch near the point, by which the thread, drawn, as in modern machines, continuously from a spool, was pushed down through the cloth, forming a loop. Through this the needle, in its next descent, carried down another loop, forming a chain-stitch, essentially the same as in a large class of modern machines. The feed device was a box, on which the cloth was laid, the box being propelled between slides by a screw until a seam equal to the length of the box was sewed. The box was then drawn back and another length of cloth laid upon it. Saint's machine was not introduced into practical use.


In 1830 Barthelemy Thimonnier patented, in France, a machine in which a chain-stitch was formed on the surface of the cloth, the needle being barbed near the point. Passing down through the cloth, it engaged with the thread fed from a spool on the under side of the cloth and drew it up, laying a loop on the surface; then, passing down again, it drew up another length of thread through the previous loop, to form a second loop. The feed was by hand. Thimonnier had, in 1841, eighty of these machines at work in Paris, on army clothing. Like the loom of Jacquard and the spinning-jenny of Hargreaves, they were destroyed by a mob; but, in 1848, Thimonnier had another set of machines at work in Paris, sewing and embroidering any material, from fine muslin to leather; but these also were destroyed and their enterprising inventor gave up in despair. This machine of Thimonnier, was, so far as is known, the only sewing machine before that of Wheeler and Wilson introduced into practical and continuous use; but it did not meet the demand, either for domestic or manufacturing purposes, because of two fatal defects: first, it made only the chain-stitch and, secondly, the cloth being moved along by hand, it required great steadiness of hand and closeness of attention to make a stitch that would be at all uniform.


In 1841 Newton and Archbold secured a patent, in England, for a sewing machine, the main point of difference from Saint's, of 1790, being that, in place of the notch, the needle had an eye near the point and was essentially identical with the needle now in universal use.


About 1832 Walter Hunt, of New York made a sewing machine which embraced as its features a curved, eye-pointed needle at the end of a vibrating arm and a shuttle making the lock-stitch. Mr. Hunt was an ingenious man, but he did not perfect his sewing machine. In 1854, after the sewing machine with his own device, in the hands of Singer and others, had become a success, he applied for a patent, with abundant proofs of his claim that he had used both the eye-pointed needle and the shuttle some ten years before.


Elias Howe Jr., began his experiments in 1843. In May, 1845, he had a machine at work which was patented September 10, 1846. The features of his invention, which have since been used in sewing machines, were the curved eye-pointed needle at the end of a vibrating arm and the shuttle making a lock-stitch. They were, it is presumed, original with him; yet, as has been shown, they were not novel. The only really new feature of Howe’s machine was his feed-motion. It consisted of a horizontal baster-plate about a foot long, with holes, engaged by the teeth of a small pinion having an intermittent motion. On its edge was a row of pins, on which the two layers of cloth to be seamed together were hung, the edges of which were just enough above the plate to be pierced by the needle. The needle had a horizontal motion, which was not an improvement on that of Saint, in 1790 and has not been adopted in any of the later successful machines. When a seam, equal in length to that of the baster-plate, has been sewed, the plate must be run back and a new length of cloth attached to it. This was, in itself, a clumsy and awkward device and, in addition to the liability of injury to the cloth from the holes made by the needle points and the delay in affixing the successive lengths of the cloth to the plate, there was the fatal objection that only straight seams could be sewed.


John Bachelder, of Boston, Massachusetts, patented, May 8, 1849, an improvement on this baster-plate, consisting of a wheel, or endless belt, with points along its edge. This was liable, however, to the same objection as the plate; namely, that it would admit only of a straight seam. Bachelder's machine made the chain-stitch and was applicable to certain varieties of coarse sewing in which straight seams only were required and when the cloth was of such texture as not to be injured by the needle points, as in coarse  bags, for the manufacture of which the machines were for some time in actual operation.


Mr. Bachelder devised the first automatic continuous feed and, as involving this principle, the patent was renewed on its expiration in 1863 and again in 1870, by special act of Congress. This was the last of the early sewing machine patents to expire, which it did May 8, 1877. Mr. Howe constructed four machines, but did not succeed in introducing them into actual use. The machine now bearing his name was not patented until 1857, some six years after Wheeler and Wilson had made the business a success.


Mr. Wilson devised his first machine, as has been said, in 1847. He became ill and was not able to work at his trade until August, 1848, when he obtained employment at Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He now resolved to develop the idea of a sewing machine. By November he had made full drawings of all the parts of the machine, according to his previous conceptions. He was then at work with Barnes and Goodrich. This firm was dissolved on the 1st of February, 1849 and Mr. Wilson remained with Amos Barnes, who continued the business, with the privilege of working evenings for himself in the shop. On the evening of the 3d of February, the first day of his engagement with Mr. Barnes, he began the construction of his first machine, which he completed about the first of April. He was compelled, by want of means, to construct every part of the work, that in iron and steel as well as in wood, himself and, as he was not a practical machinist and had not suitable tools, his first machine was rude and imperfect. With it, however, were made dress-waists and other articles requiring fine sewing, with straight or curved seams and it was exhibited to several persons, who were pleased with its work. The first problem for Mr. Wilson was, what kind of a stitch to make and the next, how to make it. The stitch needed the use of the least possible quantity of thread and a non-liability of the seam to rip.


Walter Hunt and Elias Howe, that both these conditions could best be met by a lock-stitch, made by two threads crossing each other within the two layers of Cloth and presenting the same appearance on both sides of it. The chain-stitch would take one-half more thread and, should the thread break at any point, the whole seam might ravel out.


Mr. Wilson believed that such a lock-stitch could be made if a loop could be formed by one thread on one side of the cloth and another thread could be passed singly through it. Then, by some proper device for tension, the two threads could be drawn tight, so as to present the same appearance on both sides of the cloth. For this, enough of the looping thread must be pushed through the cloth to form the loop. It did not require much mechanical ingenuity to conceive of the needle, with an eye in the point at the end of some reciprocating mechanism, to push the needle nearly through the cloth, carrying the thread with it and then to withdraw the needle, leaving enough of the thread behind to form the loop. Mr. Wilson’s idea of the shuttle was an improvement on that of Hunt or Howe, in that, as it was pointed at both ends, it would make a stitch in its motion both ways, so that to make the same number of stitches, his shuttle would need to travel only half as fast. The next point was to devise a feed-motion so far automatic as to secure a uniform length of stitch, which could not be effected by a mere guidance with the hand. It must also provide for crooked, or curved, as well as straight, seams and such seams that a sharp angle could be made, if necessary. Mr. Wilson's first device was that known as the “two-motion feed", to distinguish it from his subsequent, more effective device, the “four-motion feed". The two-motion feed consisted of a horizontally reciprocating, toothed surface, the inclination of the teeth being forward, always in contact with the material and, while the needle was in the material, moving backward to take a new stroke. This feed proved usually effective and thousands of machines having this device were sold. In this feed device Mr. Wilson solved the problem, not of making a machine which would sew after a certain fashion, but the first one which was fully adapted to the necessities of every household and a saver of time and labor in many kinds of manufacturing.


In May, 1849, having removed to North Adams, Massachusetts, he built a second machine on the same principle, but of better workmanship. He finally induced Joseph N. Chapin, of North Adams, to purchase one-half of the invention for two hundred dollars and with this money he secured a patent, November 12, 1850. While his application was pending, he got notice from parties owning an interest in a machine patented by John A. Bradshaw, of Lowell, Massachusetts, November 28, 1848, that Bradshaw’s patent covered the double-pointed shuttle which he claimed in his application and that they should oppose an issue of a patent to him. Two of these parties were A. P. Kline and Edward Lee, of New York. A compromise was made, by which Mr. Wilson conveyed them one-half of the patent. Mr. Wilson was associated with Kline and Lee for about two months before the issue of the patent, arranging to go into the manufacture and sale of the machines; but, becoming dissatisfied with this arrangement, on the 25th of November he sold to Kline and Lee all his interest in the patent, except the right for New Jersey and that to sew leather in Massachusetts, for $2.000. This sum, however, was never paid to him. Before the end of the year he was introduced to Nathaniel Wheeler, with whose name his own has been associated for a quarter of a century, as identified with one of the most extensive industrial interests of New England.

Nathaniel Wheeler was born in Watertown, Connecticut, September 7, 1820. His father was a carriage manufacturer and the son learned the trade. He was at first employed chiefly in the ornamental parts of the work and afterward had the entire charge of the business, his father owning and carrying on a farm. On attaining his majority Nathaniel took the business on his own account and carried it on about five years. At that time the manufacture of buttons and other articles of metallic small ware had become an important industry in the adjoining town of Waterbury and he decided to engage in it. Beginning with implements and tools involving only hand labor, he soon introduced machinery of various kinds. Among other articles, he made polished steel slides, for ladies. These had before been imported from Europe and Mr. Wheeler was among the first in this country to engage in making them. The price was at first eight dollars per gross and was finally reduced to twenty-five cents per gross, at which low price, by his improvements in machinery and methods, he was able to make a profit. Other articles of his manufacture were buckles and slides for hat-bands. These were also made in the same town, by Messrs. Warren and Woodruff. This firm was interested in the Warren and Newton Manufacturing Company, engaged in the neighboring village of Oakville, in the manufacture of suspenders.


Warren and Woodruff joined both their interests with that of Mr. Wheeler in 1848 and a partnership was formed, under the name of Warren, Wheeler and Woodruff. A new factory building was erected and Mr. Wheeler, taking the whole charge of the business, soon placed it on a footing of substantial success. On one of his business visits to New York, he heard of the Wilson Sewing Machine, which was then in a room in the old Sun building, 128 Fulton Street. He examined it, saw its possibilities and at once contracted with E. Lee & Co. to make five hundred of the machines. He also engaged Mr. Wilson to go with him to Watertown, to perfect the machine and to superintend its manufacture. Their relations with Lee & Co. soon ceased and, within a short time, Mr. Wilson substituted for the shuttle the rotary hook and bobbin now so well known. He had made in New York a model of a machine with this new device and had carried it with him to Watertown and now showed it to Mr. Wheeler, who highly approved it. Mr. Wilson now went to work to perfect the new machine, with the substitution referred to and secured the patent for it August 12, 1851. On the same date Isaac M. Singer received his first patent on the machine which has since been so formidable a competitor of the Wheeler and Wilson machine. The main features of Mr. Singer's machine were, that the needle was straight, moving vertically at the end of a stationary arm and that the feed was by means of a roughened wheel, which, it was claimed, was an improvement on Wilson’s two-motion feed, since it had no backward movement while in contact with the cloth. It had, however, the defect of touching the cloth only at a very small portion of its periphery. It was inferior to the later four-motion feed of Mr. Wilson. This wheel-feed of Singer was, more over, an infringement on Wilson’s patent of 1850. The principle of the automatic feed, covered by that patent, was the including of the cloth between a roughened surface on the under side and a smooth surface on the upper side, so that the cloth would be held in place while the needle was carrying the thread through it and, on the withdrawing of the needle, would be pushed forward the length of a stitch, at the same time permitting the cloth to be turned in either direction, to form a curve or angle in the seam.


Messrs. Warren, Wheeler, Woodruff and Wilson now formed a new copartnership, under the style of Wheeler, Wilson & Co. and began the manufacture of the machines under the new patent. This patent was for the combination of a rotary hook, which extended or opened more widely the loop of the needle-thread, with a reciprocating bobbin, which carried another thread through the loop so extended. To avoid litigation, Mr. Wilson contrived the stationary bobbin, which has since been the permanent feature of the Wheeler and Wilson Sewing Machine. This not only entirely removed the appearance of infringement, but was free from the objectionable features of the shuttle. The stationary bobbin was a feature of the first machine introduced into the market by Mr. Wheeler, though the patent for it was not granted until June 15, 1852. This rotary hook was an entirely novel device. Having begun the manufacture of the machine, the next step was to introduce it to the public. Mr. Wheeler took one of the machines to O. F. Winchester, now at the head of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, then largely engaged in the manufacture of shirts at New Haven, Connecticut. Mr. Winchester refused even to try it; but Mr. Wheeler had a shirt made wholly on the machine, Mr. Wilson's wife being the operator; whereupon Mr. Winchester, struck by the beauty of the work, at once purchased the right in the machine for the county of New Haven. Mr. Wheeler then carried two of the machines to Troy, N.Y. and left them with J. Gardner, a leading shirt manufacturer there. After a trial of them for three weeks, Mr. Gardner came to Watertown and purchased the one-half right to sell the machines in Rensselaer County, N.Y., for $3.000.


Mr. Wheeler now devoted him, self to the introduction of the machine, especially in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Several hundred machines had been sold, when, in October, 1853, the Wheeler and Wilson Manufacturing Company was organized. The business at this time had become so well established that outside parties desired to obtain an interest in it and a proposition was made to Messrs. Wheeler, Wilson & Co., that a joint stock company should be organized, with a capital of $160.000, of which $100.000 was to be allowed for the patent and $60.000 for the factory, machinery and so on. The firm, meanwhile, engaged to sell to the outside parties stock to the amount of $70.000 at par. The parties who subscribed for the stock gave their notes, which, however, they were not called on to pay, the dividends from the earnings of the Company liquidating them as they became due.

Mr. Wilson at this time retired from active participation in the business. In consideration of the value of his inventions, however, he received a regular salary, without personal service and considerable sums of money on the renewals of his patents. He has resided at Waterbury since 1863, where he owns an estate of some twenty-five acres, with a commodious residence. Among his out-buildings is a shop well furnished with tools and machinery for working in wood and metals, affording him ample facilities for the gratification of his mechanical taste. Here he has perfected several inventions. On the 19th of December, 1854, he patented his four-motion feed, whereby the flat, toothed surface, being in contact with the cloth, is moved forward, carrying the cloth with it; then drops a little, so as not to touch the cloth; then moves backward; then rises up against the cloth and is again ready for the first motion. This feed is at once simple and effective.

In 1865 Mr. Wilson erected a fine hotel, with a large public hall, at North Adams, Massachusetts. The manufactory was continued at Watertown until 1856, when, owing to the increase of the business, the property of the Jerome Clock Company, at Bridgeport, Connecticut, was purchased. Additions to the old brick factory, already on the premises, were made from time to time. A portion of these buildings, including the old clock factory, was burned December 12, 1875, but was at once rebuilt. In the work-shops of the Company are made the needles and other minor attachments needed for the great variety of work to which the machine is adapted. Extensive shops are also devoted to the cabinet work. The new finish of the latter, by the use of the wood-filling, was invented and patented January 18, 1876, by Mr. Wheeler. This invention is of value not only to manufacturers of sewing machines, but in every line of cabinet-work in which it is aimed to give a high polish to hard woods. The process occupies less than one-half the time and the materials cost much less than in any of the processes previously in use. Care is taken to secure the best qualities of machine thread and silk or twist. Distributing points, not only of machines, but of the various parts, attachments, needles and supplies, have been established in all parts of the country and the world. The original idea of Messrs. Wheeler and Wilson was to produce a light running machine adapted to the lighter kinds of manufacturing, such as that of shirts and of cotton goods generally. Mr. Wheeler soon concluded that there would be a very large demand for family use and directed his efforts to secure this demand. His success was such that his competitors, whose machines had been constructed more heavily and only with reference to manufacturers’ use, began to build lighter machines for a similar purpose. A demand also arose for machines for heavy manufacturing purposes, such as stitching leather and the manufacture of woolen clothing, in which, often, several thicknesses of cloth must be stitched through. It was found that some of the shuttle machines, constructed on a larger scale and running so heavily as to be beyond the strength of female operatives for the regular number of hours of a day's labor and usually run by steam, gave better satisfaction and Mr. Wheeler resolved to meet these demands for leather and heavy cloth work. The result of his experiments and of the expenditure of nearly $500.000, has been the “Improved Wheeler & Wilson Machine, Nos. 6 and 7 ". To this machine awards were made at Vienna in 1873 and at Philadelphia in 1876; corresponding to the awards to the old machine at London, in 1862 and at Paris in 1867.

The first suggestion of change was in the form and movement of the needle, from one curved and moving in the arc of a circle, to one straight and moving vertically, the latter having more piercing power. This change was easy to make, and in its device is superior to that of any other vertically-working, straight needle, in its diminished liability to the dropping of oil on the work. The next point was to make some provision for a take-up of the upper thread. In the original machine this is done by the action of the rotary hook, which, in opening a new loop, draws tight the thread of the previous loop. To effect this, the latter thread must be drawn both up and down through the two layers of cloth, which is done with perfect facility by the hook, in ordinary family sewing and light manufacturing; but, in leather and woolen goods, it was found that the hold-back on the thread was so great as to frequently break it. In shuttle machines, as the shuttle, in passing through the loop, did not enlarge it, there was no take-up action to the shuttle and a take-up above, drawing the thread up through the cloth, was needed. In the improved Wheeler & Wilson Machine, an independent take-up was provided and, in arranging its movement, an advantage over any take-up previously in use in shuttle machines was secured. In the latter, the take-up begins to draw on the thread before the needle has been withdrawn from the material, requiring a larger hole than when, as in the Wheeler & Wilson machine, the take-up draws in the thread only while it alone occupies the hole, the needle having been withdrawn. In leather especially, the Wheeler & Wilson Improved makes finer perforations, perfectly filled by the thread and much greater beauty of workmanship is attained and in water-proof articles, a water-proof seam can be secured, which is impossible with any shuttle machine, with the take-ups heretofore in use on them. To give more time for the action of this independent take-up, a simple yet ingenious adjustment has been devised, whereby the hook, instead of the regular revolutions of the original Wilson hook, moves with less rapidity through a portion of its revolutions, that is, while the needle is out of the work, than during the remainder of the revolution.

This required also a modification of the form of the hook, which was still further altered to conform to the shape of the bobbin, which was increased in thickness so as to hold twice the amount of thread. The last new device is that designed to secure tension on the lower thread. Here, also, a manifest improvement over the shuttle machines has been made. In the latter, the tension is secured by passing the thread through one or more holes in the shuttle, or by some other device in the shuttle itself and, if the tension is wrong, the operator must take out the shuttle, change the adjustment of the thread, replace the shuttle and try it, with the liability of having to repeat the experiment and with much loss of time. In the Wheeler & Wilson Improved, the simple pressure of a lever, which can be made while the machine is in motion, will effect the object.

The machines numbered respectively six and seven are essentially the same, the former being used for leather and the latter arranged so that the operator may sit on the opposite side of the machine. The power of this machine is illustrated in the fact that it has sewed through a fabric composed of seven layers of tin-plate, with two layers of woolen cloth between each layer of tin-plate, making fourteen thicknesses of cloth and seven of tin and the whole fabric being more than three-eighths of an inch thick and has then passed directly and without change of adjustment, except dropping the presser-plate, to the stitching together of two thicknesses of fine muslin. The same general features have been introduced into a new machine or family purposes, No. 8.

Mr. Wheeler took a leading part in forming the combination, in 1856, of the principal sewing machine companies. The three companies which were parties in it, the Wheeler & Wilson, the Singer and the Grover & Baker, had begun business about the same time and the patents under which they were working were granted between November 12, 1850 and August 12, 1851. They had been engaged in mutual litigation and Mr. Howe, was also seeking to enforce his claim on the Singer Company. Of the four parties thus in legal conflict, all except the Wheeler & Wilson, in addition to the suits against each other as manufacturers, had threatened purchasers or users of rival machines with suits for damages. It was contracted by the three companies and Mr. Howe, that they would stop their litigation and, with a fair payment to each other and to Mr. Howe for special rights, would carry on the business with only honorable competition. They finally agreed to license any responsible persons who should propose to engage in the manufacture of a good machine, on the payment of a royalty, which, for several years, was only three dollars on a machine.

The officers of the company at its organization, were:

Alanson Warren, President; George P. Woodruff, Secretary and Treasurer and Nathaniel Wheeler, General Manager. Mr. Warren resigned his office in 1855 and Mr. Wheeler was  elected president, retaining the office of general manager. Mr. Woodruff resigned his offices in 1855, being succeeded by William H. Perry, who was born in Woodstock, Connecticut, in 1820. When a young man Mr. Perry taught school in Newington, Connecticut, six terms. He was afterward employed by his brother, who was a contractor in the armory of Samuel Colt, at Hartford, Connecticut. Having acquired in this employment practical skill as a machinist, he engaged with his brother to execute a portion of his contract. In 1855 he went to Watertown, Connecticut and became book-keeper in the office of the Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing Company and was appointed the next year superintendent of the factory. In July, 1856, he was elected secretary and treasurer, which offices, with that of superintendent, he still holds. Mr. Wheeler has represented Bridgeport in the State legislature and his political party in its national conventions. He was also one of the commissioners of the State capitol at Hartford, the greatest public enterprise ever undertaken in the State. He is in the prime of life, in vigorous health and with the prospect of many years of honorable and useful activity.




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