Original Howe sewing machine, c 1846.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Detail. Elias Howe (1819-1867) designed sewing machines in his spare time. He perfected this first machine in 1845. The principle of the machine was awkward but practical. A thin baster plate with pins held the material in place and carried it forward for a measured distance. The needle worked in conjunction with a shuttle, forming a lockstitch. Howe patented the machine in the United States in 1846, but it proved imposible to sell until the idea took off in 1849, and Howe was then able to sue many other companies for infringement of his patent rights.