12 August 1851: Isaac Singer patents his sewing machine

On this day in 1851, Isaac Merritt Singer patented the sewing machine that would take the world by storm, and make him a very rich man indeed.

Isaac Merritt Singer was a colourful kind of chap. He was born in Pittstown, New York, in 1811, and left school at the age of 12. After working in various unsatisfying careers, he decided to follow his passion for acting, and formed his own moderately unsuccessful travelling theatre troupe, the Merritt Players.

He had an eye for the ladies, and in the nine years that he was touring and taking odd jobs here and there to pay the bills, he ended up as father to 24 children.

Eventually, however, his troupe went bust and was disbanded, and Singer started work as an apprentice mechanic, a career in which he carved out considerably more success.

By 1839, he had invented and patented a machine for drilling rock. And in 1851, he was working in a machine shop in Boston, and was given a broken sewing machine to repair. Not only did he repair the original machine, within a fortnight he had invented a whole new, better one. And on this day that same year, he patented his invention.

As happened with so many inventions, Singer's machine built on previous inventors' work, most notably that of Elias Howe. Howe sued Singer for infringing his patent, and won royalty payments that made him a rich man. By 1859, he was collecting some $400,000 a year.

Singer set up in business with Edward Clark, and toured the USA showing off his machines. They sold like hot cakes. By 1860, Singer was the biggest sewing-machine manufacturer in the world.

But it wasn't just machinery that Singer developed. He came up with a way of selling his machines that made him stupendously rich – credit instalment plans. Singer's "a dollar down, a dollar a week" plans led to the company's phenomenal success.

In his later years, Singer retired to Paignton in Devon, where he had a grand residence built – Oldway House, which included a private theatre. He died in 1875, aged 63.

Recommended

Isas vs private pensions – which is better for retirement?
Isas

Isas vs private pensions – which is better for retirement?

Isas are becoming a popular option for retirement, but private pensions still have certain advantages.
7 Dec 2022
UK house prices see their biggest fall since 2008
House prices

UK house prices see their biggest fall since 2008

Halifax’s latest house price index shows UK house prices fell by 2.3% in November
7 Dec 2022
Key dates for 2023: here are the dates you need to know when it comes to your money in 2023
Personal finance

Key dates for 2023: here are the dates you need to know when it comes to your money in 2023

There is no shortage of important dates to be aware of next year – which are likely to affect your financial health. We run through the key dates in 2…
6 Dec 2022
What is a recession and how will it affect you?
UK Economy

What is a recession and how will it affect you?

The UK economy is heading towards a recession, according to economists. But what is a recession, and what does it mean for your money?
6 Dec 2022

Most Popular

Is it cheaper to leave the heating on low all day?
Personal finance

Is it cheaper to leave the heating on low all day?

The weather is getting colder and energy bills are rising, but is it really cheaper to leave the heating on low all day or should you only turn it on …
1 Dec 2022
Radiator vs electric heater – which is cheaper?
Personal finance

Radiator vs electric heater – which is cheaper?

We compare the costs, pros and cons of radiators and electric heaters and see which one will help keep your energy bill as low as possible.
28 Nov 2022
The pros and cons of smart meters – should you switch?
Personal finance

The pros and cons of smart meters – should you switch?

A smart meter can help you keep tabs on your energy usage, but is it better than a regular meter? We take a look at smart meters vs regular meters.
2 Dec 2022