It was in the year 1843, when Howe was trying to support a family on US$9.00 a week, that the pressure of extreme poverty forced him to concentrate on his idea for a stitching machine.
He took it for granted that all sewing must be performed in the same manner as hand stitching, and his first months of inventive effort were wasted on a device that duplicated the hand stitch.
This first invention consisted of a needle pointed at both ends·with the eye in the middle, which was drawn up and down through the cloth and carried the thread with it at each thrust. Realizing the impracticability of this machine, Howe brooded over his failure until the question occurred to him, "Is it really necessary that a machine should imitate the performance of the human hand?"
This idea gave birth to the" shuttle stitch" machine, which used two threads and formed the stitch with the aid of a shuttle and reciprocating needle, with the eye near that point. By making a rough model of wood and wire, Howe was convinced that such a machine would sew.
By May of 1845, he had completed a working model — the first practical shuttle stitch machine — whose fundamental principles endure to this day and had obtained a patent in 1846. His invention was sold in England to William F. Thomas of Cheapside, London, a corset manufacturer, for £250.
In December of 1846, Thomas secured the English patent in his own name and engaged Howe to adapt the machine to his manufacturing purposes. The career of the inventor in London was unsuccessful and having pawned his American patent rights in England to pay various debts and his expenses to get home, Howe returned to America in 1849, in poverty.
The American public, in the meantime, had become interested in the sewing machine, and a few mechanics had completed machines that infringed on Howe's patent rights.
Howe was able to secure the financial support of a wealthy capitalist and took court action against the infringers. As an outcome of the lawsuits, Howe was publicly acknowledged as the inventor of the shuttle sewing machine. He established himself in New York as a manufacturer, and after a few years was in a position to buy back the patents he had been forced to sell in England.
Royalties on machines made up until the expiration of his patent (September 1867) brought Howe an estimated sum of two million dollars. He was decorated with the Cross of the Legion of Honor by France but did not live long enough to enjoy the honor and awards due him. Elias Howe, Jr. died on October 3, 1867, in Brooklyn, New York.
The feasibility of sewing by the machine having been demonstrated, improvements and new inventions followed rapidly.
In 1849, Allan B. Wilson, working entirely without knowledge of previous efforts, devised the rotary hook and bobbin combination. Wilson's invention included the important four-motion feed for moving the work after every stitch.
The first practical single chain stitch machine was devised by James E. Gibbs of Virginia. His invention, patented in 1856, featured a rotary hook or looper, and a needle with a vertical motion only. Gibbs went into partnership with James Willcox of Philadelphia forming the Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company which made important advancements in the art of machine sewing.