This monument caught my eye as I drove through the south-central town of Spencer in Massachusetts. It was on busy two-lane Route 9 (Main Street) in the center of town, in a well-kept yard in front of a three-story brick building.
Unveiled in 1909, the monument recognized the inventive minds of three Spencer natives: brothers William and Tyler Howe, and their nephew Elias Howe Jr. It was originally sited at town hall, about a half mile up Main Street from its present location. The building behind it, then the West Main Street School, is now a private residence.
Main Street through downtown roughly follows the path of the old Boston Post Road, which was the stagecoach route between Boston and Hartford, CT. In the late 1700’s, Spencer was a key stop on the route. It was where passengers changed stages, as one coach would come from Boston and connect with one coming north from Hartford.
William was an innkeeper in 1840 when he designed a wooden truss bridge that set the standard across the nation, especially for railway bridges. It was of crossed wooden beams in an ‘X’ pattern, similar to that of Stephen Long, but he used adjustable metal rods instead of upright vertical timbers. It’s reported that he got his inspiration from examining the structure of a church in nearby Brookfield, MA. His patent withstood a challenge from Long and the design, with improvements patented by him in 1850, was used across the country and as far away as Russia until all-steel structures became the norm.
Meanwhile, his brother Tyler had headed out west for the Gold Rush. That didn’t work out so well and in 1850 he returned home the cheapest, albeit longest, way, by boat. He had such a lousy time trying to sleep on the hard, straw-packed mattress aboard the ship that he set about coming up with a more comfortable design. He patented a bed made of springs in 1855, an innovation that made him a very wealthy man.
And at nearly the same time, Elias Howe Jr., nephew of William and Tyler, was trying to come up with improvements to the sewing machine, which had been around in various forms since the late 1700’s. His 1846 patent was the first for a sewing machine using a
lockstitch design and it contained the three essential features common to most modern machines: a shuttle operating beneath the cloth to form the lock stitch, an automatic feed, and a needle with the eye at the point, instead of at the top.
As he tried, and failed, to make his machine commercially successful, others started poaching his ideas. Does the name Isaac Singer sound familiar? He was among several who marketed machines that copied Elias’ design. In a massive court case that stretched from 1849 to 1854, he fought them and won, earning royalties from Singer and others.
It’s said by some that the placement of the ‘eye’ in the needle came to him in a dream: He was in a foreign country under the rule of a savage king, who gave him 24 hours to build a sewing machine. He was failing and the king called for the guards to execute him. He noticed that the guards carried spears with a hole at the tip. Fiercely begging for mercy in his sleep, he awoke from the dream at four in the morning. He remembered it all and by nine had built a rough working model, with a needle that had the eye near the tip.
But it’s murky: The dream recounted over at sewalot.com, and credited to Elias’ courtroom testimony, is this: “It was all a dream… Elias Howe was in the middle of a dream where Red Indians were attacking another Indian camp. During the attack they were firing arrows. Some of the arrows pierced through wigwams made of stout cloth, not hide. As the arrows pierced the tents (the arrows had flint heads) some snagged threads, drawing the threads through with the tips of the arrows creating large loops of loose thread. Elias woke in the middle of his dream, rushed to his workshop, and put his ‘dream’ into practice.”
In case you’ve been paying attention to the dates and wondering why all these inventions by members of the same family in the same small Massachusetts town in the middle 1800’s weren’t recognized by that town until some 50 years later, there is this snide swipe from a 1909 issue of Munsey’s Magazine:
“The little town of Spencer, Massachusetts, which has long been famous but didn’t know it, will, on October 1 of the present year , call upon the whole world to witness its tardy recognition of its own distinction by dedicating a monument to the cause thereof, the Howe family.”
And finally, this tidbit for my friends in the publishing industry, Munsey’s Magazine is credited with being the country’s first mass market magazine, selling in its heyday around 1900 some 700,000 copies a month. It was owned by Frank Munsey. Some of you old farts will recognize the name of one of his other publications, Argosy.