“Albany Agreement” created history on October 24, 1856 by forming the first-ever patent pool in the US. This patent pool lasted for over 20 years. The Agreement resulted in the Sewing Machine Combination or the Sewing Machine Trust and comprised four companies who pooled their patents. The patent pool led to all other manufacturers of sewing machines being forced to obtain a license and pay $7 to $15 per machine. On the other hand, the Agreement protected the four companies against possible infringement issues of overlapping patents in this domain and reduced the overheads of licensing and litigation.
Prior to the Sewing Machine Combination, the manufacturing of sewing machine was solely controlled by Elias Howe, who charged a royalty fee of $25 for every machine sold. Orlando B. Potter, a business lawyer of those days, worked with Howe, Wheeler & Wilson, and Issac Singer’s I. M. Singer and Company to come to an understanding. Efforts of Potter resulted in the formation of the “Albany Agreement,” where the four companies agreed to pool their relevant patents. The key points of the Agreement led to an equal share of the profits, provided there are at least 24 licensees. However, Howe had an extra edge and received $5 royalty for each domestic sale and $1 for each export.
The patent pool created consisted of only nine patents. The key assets of the patent pool were Singer’s vertical needle and horizontal sewing surface patent, Howe’s lockstitch patent, and Wheeler and Wilson’s patent on the four-motion feed. Several other companies, in addition to these strategic four, had to license these patents and paid royalties decided according to annual production reports. But after 1877, with the expiry of these key patents, the Combination also expired.
The sewing machine patent war actually began in 1852 when Elias Howe, who had patented the lockstitch in 1846, sued Isaac Singer for patent infringement. Singer, who had made some important improvements such as inventing a thread controller and figuring out how to combine a vertical needle with a horizontal sewing surface, rejected Howe’s initial demand for royalty for the right to US patent 4750. Howe eventually won a case for patent infringement and was awarded the right to claim royalties from manufacturers using his patent, including Singer. Suits and countersuits followed before both sides reached an accord in 1854 and started suing competitors.
In August 1854, Howe and Singer advertised in Scientific American warning consumers of the infringement risk due to “buying any of the numerous infringer machines in the market.” Manufacturers of those “infringer machines” were also informed. For the next three years, I.M. Singer & Co., the Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Company, Wheeler and Wilson & Co., and other patent holders were involved in multiple separate lawsuits.Peace was finally achieved by creating the first patent pool - Sewing Machine Combination. As consumer demand rose and licensing fees dropped sharply, numerous sewing machine brands appeared on the market.
However, Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal, a German-born engineer working in England, was credited for the first British patent (Patent No 701) for a mechanical device to aid the art of sewing in 1755. His invention consisted of a double-pointed needle with an eye at one end.
In 1790, English inventor Thomas Saint invented (Patent No 1764) the first sewing machine design, but he did not successfully advertise or market his invention. His machine was meant to be used on leather and canvas material and used the chain stitch method, in which the machine uses a single thread to make simple stitches in the fabric. In 1874, a sewing machine manufacturer, William Newton Wilson, found Saint’s drawings in the London Patent Office, made adjustments to the same, andbuilt a working machine, currently displayed at the London Science Museum.
In 1804, a sewing machine was built by Englishmen Thomas Stone and James Henderson, and a machine for embroidering was constructed by John Duncan in Scotland.
An Austrian tailor, Josef Madersperger, began developing his first sewing machine in 1807. He presented his first working machine in 1814.After several unsuccessful attempts to improve the sewing machine, in 1839, he built a machine imitating the weaving process using the chain stitch. Madersperger soon ran out of money and couldn’t commercialize further. He donated the prototype to the K K Polytechnic Institute.
The first practical and widely used sewing machine was invented by Barthélemy Thimonnier, a French tailor, in 1829. His machine sewed straight seams using chain stitch, and in 1830, he signed a contract with Auguste Ferrand, a mining engineer, who made the requisite drawings for submitting a patent application. The patent for his machine was issued on July 1830 (US Patent No 7622), and in the same year, he opened the first machine-based clothing manufacturing company in the world to create army uniforms for the French Army. However, the factory was burned down, reportedly by workers fearful of losing their livelihood following the issuing of the patent.
The first American lockstitch sewing machine was invented by Walter Hunt in 1832.His machine used an eye-pointed needle carrying the upper thread and a falling shuttle carrying the lower thread. The curved needle moved through the fabric horizontally, leaving the loop as it withdrew. The shuttle passed through the loop, interlocking the thread. Hunt eventually lost interest in his machine and sold individual machines without bothering to patent his invention.
In 1842, John Greenough patented the first sewing machine in the United States. The British partners Newton and Archibold introduced the eye-pointed needle and the use of two pressing surfaces to keep the pieces of fabric in position in 1841.
The first machine to combine all disparate elements of the previous half-century of innovation into the modern sewing machine was the device built by English inventor John Fisher in 1844, thus a little earlier than the very similar machines built by Isaac Merritt Singer in 1851, and lesser known Elias Howe in 1845. However, due to the misfiling of Fisher’s patent at the Patent Office, he did not receive due recognition for the modern sewing machine nor did he peruse his invention and it was Singer who won the benefits of the patent.
In 1873, the Singer Sewing Machine Manufacturing Co. purchased 32 acres of land in Elizabeth and established its first factory in the United States. The company also had a plant in Kilbowie, Clydebank, Scotland. Moreover, the company launched the first instalment-payment plan in the US and hired a door-to-door sales force to collect weekly payments and demonstrate the functioning of the machines. Urban showrooms were also opened, and machines were demonstrated at fairs and events.Singer ended up becoming one of the most well-known consumer brands in the world with nearly 75% of the world sales of sewing machines. For more than 100 years, no other sewing machine could come close to that of Singer. Elias Howe, however, concentrated on licensing and infringement actions and reportedly earned more than $2 million from patent licensing.
The plan of the Sewing Machine Combination was simple but far reaching - to pool or combine all relevant patents into one bucket. Now, any small company who dared to step out of line and make a sewing machine without paying the Combination would end up in court. The Sewing Machine Combination had become an all-powerful monopoly. The legal system allowed the Combination to continue even though the popular press hated it and continuously attacked it. Though the monopoly may appear unfair on the grounds of antitrust and competition law, the reality remains that it was from this point in history that the adaptation and business of the sewing machine flourished.
Disclaimer – The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and are purely informative in nature.