A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Fifty One


Elias Howe Jr (1819 – 1867)

It is a device which is used everywhere many times a day around the world and is still one of the most effective means of getting a complete join between two edges of clothing. Of course, I’m talking about the zip but do you know who first had the idea that led to the creation of this everyday object? Step forward, Elias Howe Jr, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame.

Born in 1819 in Spencer, Massachusetts, Howe is better known for his work on developing and refining the sewing machine for which on 10th September 1846 he was awarded an American patent. His version of the sewing machine contained three features which are still in use today – a needle with the eye at the point, a shuttle operating beneath the cloth to form the lock stitch – the most common form of stitch made by a mechanical sewing machine – and an automatic feed.

Of course, gaining a patent and make a commercial success of your invention are two different things and Howe struggled to get the necessary backing in the States for his machine. Our hero enlisted the help of his brother Amara who travelled over to England and was able to sell the first machine to a manufacturer of corsets, umbrellas and valises in London’s Cheapside, one William Thomas, for the princely sum of £250. Suitably encouraged by this success Elias moved his family over to England in 1848. But this ended unhappily as his wife suffered from ill-health and moved back to the States, dying the following year and Thomas proved a prickly person to deal with. Howe returned to the States almost penniless.

Although Howe struggled to make his invention a commercial reality others had spotted the potential. Isaac Singer with the help of Walter Hunt had created a perfect copy of his machine and was selling it with the same lock stitch that Howe had developed and patented. Between 1849 and 1854 Howe was in the courts defending his patent and won a considerable amount in the way of royalties from Singer and others from his invention. Our hero spent most of his fortune buying equipment for the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army in the American Civil War.

However, more germane to our tale is the patent which Howe applied for and received in 1851 for what he called An Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure which performed a similar to the zip that we know and love today. Consisting of individual clasps which were pulled together manually and pulled shut using a piece of string, it created a gathering effect and a more complete join that a series of buttons would. Whether Howe was distracted by the legal difficulties that he was encountering over his sewing machine or whether he saw a more immediate prospect of riches from it, is unclear but whatever the reason was, Howe chose not to develop his prototype zip into a commercial proposition.

It was not until 1913 that Gideon Sandrock perfected a device consisting of interlocking oval scoops that could be joined together tightly by means of a metal slider. Even then this more recognisable form of the zip took time to take off – the First World War finding a use for the zip for flying suits and money belts.  B.F.Goodrich christened this new form of fastener the zip in the 1920s because of the sound the slider made.

For failing to recognise the potential of your prototype zip, Elias Howe, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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