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 Merrit Singer's first sewing machine © Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Merrit Singer's machine was smaller and cheaper than the competition
(Image credit: © Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

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.

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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.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

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