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

Changpeng Zhao: Binance founder undaunted by the crypto winter
Bitcoin & crypto

Changpeng Zhao: Binance founder undaunted by the crypto winter

Changpeng Zhao, the founder of controversial cryptocurrency exchange Binance, has been severely battered by carnage in the sector. But the future is b…
3 Jul 2022
Ray Dalio’s shrewd $10bn bet on the collapse of European stocks
European stockmarkets

Ray Dalio’s shrewd $10bn bet on the collapse of European stocks

Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater hedge fund is putting its money on a collapse in European stocks. It’s likely to pay off, says Matthew Lynn.
3 Jul 2022
Just how powerful is artificial intelligence becoming?
Tech stocks

Just how powerful is artificial intelligence becoming?

An uncannily human response from an artificial intelligence program sparked a minor panic last month. But just how powerful are machines getting – and…
2 Jul 2022
Persimmon yields 12.3%, but can you trust the company to deliver?
Share tips

Persimmon yields 12.3%, but can you trust the company to deliver?

With a dividend yield of 12.3%, Persimmon looks like a highly attractive prospect for income investors. But that sort of yield can also indicate compa…
1 Jul 2022

Most Popular

UK house prices are definitely cooling off – but are they heading for a fall?
House prices

UK house prices are definitely cooling off – but are they heading for a fall?

UK house prices hit a fresh high in June, but as interest rates start to rise, the market is cooling John Stepek assesses just how much of an effect h…
30 Jun 2022
How to invest in copper, the most important metal in the world
Industrial metals

How to invest in copper, the most important metal in the world

As the world looks to electrify and try to move away from fossil fuels, copper looks set to be the biggest beneficiary. But how can you invest? Rupert…
30 Jun 2022
Don’t try to time the bottom – start buying good companies now
Investment strategy

Don’t try to time the bottom – start buying good companies now

Markets are having a rough time, so you may be tempted to wait to try to call the bottom and pick up some bargains. But that would be a mistake, says …
1 Jul 2022