Birth of a Singer

On August 12 of 1851 Isaac Singer was granted a patent on a sewing machine. So yes, that’s why they’re Singers.

Now it’s an interesting development in all kinds of ways. First of all, it’s just one of a great many mechanical improvements that since the Industrial Revolution began around the time of Watt’s steam engine had been depriving unskilled and even skilled manual laborers of opportunity. (Yes, I know, we’re all richer and better off, but it won’t do to overlook this side of things just because we aren’t seamstresses whose 40 stitches a minute were left in the dust by the Singer machine’s 900.)

Second, and related, it reminds us that this process of globalization and technological change has been going on for quite a while now (Marx and Engels’ famous lament that under what they called capitalism “all that is solid melts into air” was made three years before this patent), so that if it were going to make us supremely happy it should have already.

Third, if you care, while also inventing other things Singer found time to have 24 children by various wives and non-wives so we didn’t invent that recently either.

Fourth… OK, forget any further profundity if that even was profundity. What really stands out for me is that sewing machines are infuriating. Not because you tend to sew your thumb or connect what you’re working on to your sleeve, though it could happen. Because I can’t figure out how they work.

One needle goes through the cloth, another goes pokey, the first one leaves and the threads are somehow intertwined in ways that hold indefinitely. How? How can this be? How can two straight needles moving in a straight line (both are key Singer innovations, apparently) wind around one another then leave the thread behind? Why doesn’t it just trap a loop that pulls out and the whole thing unravels.

Yes, I’m sure I could look it up especially today since the endless stream of inventions includes the Internet. I could Google “basic principles of sewing machines for total dunces” and someone would explain it. And I just did. Or rather “How does a sewing machine work?” a search Google completed for me, speaking of automation. And I’m glad to see that I’m not the only nit who wondered, as a cool site I found put it, “How, if the needle just bobs up and down, does the thread lock in place?” How indeed?

They cheat. Or rather they are very clever. See, there’s this spinning hook down there, hidden under the plate and your fabric, and it grabs the descending thread and wraps it around the one coming off the bobbin underneath. What a great word. I think I’ll write it again. Bobbin. I was right. I did write it again.

That site, which is, ends “So it's not magic; it's mechanics. And to me, that's even neater.” I don’t know. I think magic would be cool too. And I think that creativity has a certain genuine magic to it.

At any rate I think Singer fully deserved his patent. That system is just really cool. How did he ever think of it?