Plato wrote in The New Republic that Necessity is the Mother of Invention. I agree on a small scale, such as you are in a public restroom and the stall doesn’t have a working latch. You get a big enough wad of paper or the cardboard from the seat liners and wedge that between the door and frame. Or the well-known dad’s solution to ripping the tapes off a diaper: Duct tape the thing on.
But Necessity requires assistance from science and discovery to fix big things with inventions. Clocks have been a necessity for centuries, hence all the different types dabbled with: Hourglass, sundials, water clocks, candle clocks, winded clocks, pendulum clocks. Being able to find your way around the oceans required a precise method for telling time, much more accurate than those available before the mid 17th century.
Christiaan Hugyens invented the pendulum clock, a more accurate device than before, in 1656. He worked on a marine device and developed a balance wheel and spiral spring device but it did not work well at sea. Robert Hooke, Jeremy Thacker, and Henry Sully all tried to make the perfect marine chronometer. They all worked off of models that had gone before. John Harrison came very close in 1759 and invented new technology that is still widely used today, but still could not make his items as accurate as needed for use at sea.
Then, in 1761, Harrison though small, and came up with “H4”, a 5 inch time piece that looked like a pocket watch but used new ideas that prevented the waves and weather from interfering with the time keeper. Pierre Leroy, Ferdinand Berthoud, and Thomas Mudge all jumped in and proved that Harrison’s design wasn’t the only way to provide accurate time at sea. Then Thomas Earnshaw and John Arnold in 1780 made great strides in developing improved designs, so much so that this combination of improvements were the basis of marine chronometers until the electronic era.
Could Earnshaw and Arnold have produced the timepiece they did without all that work and material that went ahead of them? Probably not. And while the necessity of keeping accurate time was always there, invention had to wait on the right time.
If someone asked you, “Who invented the sewing machine?” you might answer, “Elias Howe”. First, however, you should know that sewing by hand goes back 20,000 years. The first needles were crafted from bone or antler or horn. Iron needles had to wait for the 14th century and eyes didn’t show up until the 15th century. In 1755, in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, Charles Wisenthal received a British patent for a needle. This is rather like getting a patent on exhaust pipes but not describing the whole car.
Thomas Saint received a patent for a whole machine in 1790. No prototype is known to exist, and when someone built a machine according to the design, where an awl punches a hole in leather and then passes a needle through the hole, it didn’t work. An 1810 attempt by Balthasar Krems didn’t work reliably. Josef Madersperger made several attempts and received a patent in 1814. His machines are considered unsuccessful. 1804 through 1818 saw more attempts and more failures.
The sad tale of tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier highlights the need to wait for the right time to reveal an invention. His machine worked too well, using one hooked needle for a stitch like the embroidery chain stitch. Irate tailors in 1830 burned down his factory and nearly killed the inventor, out of fear for mass unemployment.
In 1834 America, Walter Hunt designed the first working machine (if you only wanted to sew straight seams) but fearing unemployment of many in the garment industry, he failed to pursue the idea. Thus the first patent for a sewing machine went to Elias Howe. His design is pretty close to the modern machine we use today. But the road ahead was not smooth at all. For nine years, Mr. Howe defended his machine from patent infringement and tried to interest investor so he could market the product. During those years, Isaac Singer invented the up and down motion for the needle and Allen Wilson developed the rotary shuttle.
Mr. Singer presented the first commercially successful machine the 1850s but courts decided he infringed upon Mr. Howe’s patent. The fees Singer paid to Howe bumped his income from $300 a year to more than $200,000 a year. Life moved on and other patents were awarded to folks who improved upon Elias Howe’s improvement on Walter Hunt’s design. And in 1873, Helen Augusta Blanchard invented the first zigzag stitch machine. She’s a remarkable historical figure, with 28 other patented inventions.
Elias Howe died in 1867, the year his patent expired. As I said, timing is everything when it comes to inventions. Thanks for reading, I’ll be back on Thursday.