© Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library
The sewing machine, Mahatma Gandhi declared, 'was one of the few useful things ever invented'. Yet its commercial birth was slow and uncertain, coming many years after the introduction of machines that mechanised spinning and weaving.
Elias Howe developed the first really practical machine that could sew, which combines a needle with the eye at the point, to carry the thread through the cloth, a mechanism to lock the stitch behind it with a separate thread, and a means of stepping the cloth along at each stitch by a measured distance. Howe had little luck in selling the idea at home in the USA however and in 1846 decided to try Britain, then the major textiles producer in the world.
Travelling with his prototype machine on display Howe met with little success and eventually sold the machine for a few pounds to a London engineering concern in order to buy a ticket home. On his return, he found the American sewing machine business had taken off in a big way. Howe endured long legal struggles against makers including Singer, but eventually received royalties on their machines, becoming at last a rich man.