In the year 1825, there lived in the city of Saint Etienne, in France, a poor and obscure tailor whose patrons were few and far between. His carelessness about the work intrusted to him, joined to his eccentric habits, obtained for him throughout the neighborhood an unenviable reputation, the natural consequences of which were that his business declined from day to day and he ended by becoming a veritable pauper. In 1827, he was considered as laboring under the constant influence of hallucinations, and in 1829, he was unanimously regarded by the gossips of his precinct as insane. This madman was no other than Barthlemy Thimonnier, the inventor of the first sewing machine. He was born at Abreste in the year 1793, and was the son of a dyer of Lyons. It is an old custom with many manufacturers of the south of France, to give out large quantities of needle-work and embroidery to the country girls residing around their establishments. This attracted the notice of Thimonnier and originated in his mind the first idea of a sewing machine. On its construction he worked without help or money during four successive years, at the expiration of which, in 1830, he obtained his letters patent. A government engineer by the name of Beaunier, living at Saint Etiennebt the time, examined the machine, and appreciating at a glance the value of the invention, took the tailor with him to Paris, where a firm was soon started under the title of " Ferrand, Thimonnier, Germain, Petit Co., with a view to the profitable working of the patent. In 1841, in the Rue de Sevres, might have been seen a work-shop,in which eighty wooden sewing machines were constantly employed in making army clothing. That same year, however, the tide of a fierce revolutionary outbreak swept over France, and the laboring men of the capital, in their blind and ignorant fury, saw in this new substitution of machinery for manual labor, nothing but a means of robbing their wives and daughters of their daily bread. The consequence was exactly the same as in the case of the canal boatmen of M nden, who destroyed the first steamboat started there in the year 1707, and of the Belgian weavers, who some years ago broke up the first flax-spinning machinery imported from England into the city of Ghent. An armed and infuriated mob smashed all of Thimonnier's machines, and he himself had to flee for his life. Soon after this Beaunier died, and the firm, of Germain, Petit Co., was dissolved leaving our poor tailor out in the cold. In the year 1834, Thimonnier returned to Paris, and having improved his machine, attempted to make a living by taking in sewing. In this, however, he failed, and was at length obliged to walk all the way back to his native home with his machine upon his back, exhibiting it as a curiosity along the road in order to enable him to purchase hs daily meals. After this sad experience it would be thought Thimonnier would have given up the matter in despair, but, on the contrary, he went to work and constructed several new machines which he disposed of with the greatest difficulty. In the year 1845, the date of Howe's patent in America, the French machine was already making two hundred stitches a minute M. Magnin, of Villefranca, at this crisis joined our inventor, and furnishing the necessary funds, the construction of ten-dollar machines was at once begun by them3 with a fair pros4 pect of pecuniary reward. In 1848, these machines made three hundred stitches per minute, and could sew and embroider any material from muslin to leather inclusive* The woodwork had now also been replaced by metal. In the memorable month of February, 1848, another convulsion of the people took place in France, and for the second and last time were Thimonnier's hopes of success entirely blightedj himself and his partner being completely ruined by it He sold his English patent to Manchester company for a trifle, sent his best machine in 1851 to the great London Ex* 'hibition, but too late to be noticed ; and finally after thirty-years of a life of incessant struggle and adversity he died at the age of 64, in the greatest poverty, on the 5th day of August, 1857, at a place called Amplepuis. While our poor tailor was starving in Europe, the sewing machine was being perfected on a new principle, in the United States, and in 1845, Elias Howe, Jr., obtained his pa'ent out of which he eventually made quite a large sum of money. Since 1852, American sewing machines by various makers have taken the premiums at all the shows, and were soon known and appreciated over the whole civilized world. At the present time improved machines, together with a few original patterns, are manufactured in England, France, Germany, and other countries, some of which are not surpassed by our own, being compact, cheap, and simple, and work rapidly and efficiently, If our manufacturers wish to contribute to the wants of the outer world in sewing machines, they must apply their energies and ingenuity to perfect their machines as some of them appear to be doing. A good needlewoman with her needle makes from twenty-five to thirty stitches per minute, while a modern sewing machine will make one thousand ; and yet we cannot call this i last a labor-saving machine, so far as regards the operator on it. As compared with sewing by hand, the sewing with the machine is a really very laborious and fatiguing occupation. A general law of mechanics is that whatever we gain in speed must be compensated by increase in power. For every extra stitch over the twenty-five or thirty mentioned above, a greater effort will be needed from the operator, until she may occasionally be taxed to her very utmost. Increased power in this case is increased muscular action ; muscular action needs fuel for combustion in the human machine ; fuel for combustion means increased expense for daily food, a strain on the digestive organs, or a certain and dangerous physical waste of the individual. Our stage and street car horses are changed several times a day, but sewing girls at their machines are expected to work for ten or twelve consecutive hours with intermittent but continually repeated motions of the muscles of the lower limbs. Persons express surprise, if the remark be made that the poor operator is actually wearing herself out, and this mach more rapidly than the slight movements she is making would seem to indicate. We have before us a very interesting report, addressed to the " Societe Medicale des Hopitaux," in 1866, by Doctor Gfui-bout, on the sanitary condition of the many sewing machine operators which came under his personal notice in the public hospitals of Paris. Hollow cheeks, pale and discolored faces, arched backs, epigastric pains, predisposition to lung disease, and other special symptoms too numerous to be specified, were found to be the general characteristics of all the patients. In the public houses of correction, where the female prisoners are obliged to work at sewing machines, in order to contribute toward diminMting the public cost of their detention, it has been found indispensable to issue to tltem supplementary rations over the usual diet of the establishments in order to keep them in good health. These disastrous efiects must eventually te cL toward the deterioration of our race and deserve, in a humanitarian point of view, the most serious consideration of all friends of mankind. The way to remedy these evils is simple enough, viz., to make the sewing machine an automotor. In large establishments, where numbers of them are in daily use, steam has been applied with success, simple contrivances allowing them to be staged pr teir fed to mizemd $%;of the operator. Steam, however, is unavailable in private dwellings ; and here we meet with a eed wMcl jmnem,inventors ought long ago to have fujlj ud satiifact rilp tiplied, that of a " family" automatic machj . ' ,- The only really practical device of the kind with wMeh we are acquainted (and this leaves much to be desired) is the electro-magnetic automotor invented in France by H. Cazal, which occupies so little space that it may be hidden under a foot stood. The fact that the cost of combustion of zinc is thirty times higher than if the power had been obtained by the combustion of coal, is to a certain extent compensated by the advantages of absence of boiler, fires, smoke,smell,or dust. Four of Bunsen's elements are sufficient for driving an ordinary sewing machine at a cost of fifteen or sixteen cents per day. The apparatus itself consists in an iron pulley with an externally toothed rim, which revolves freely within a metallic ring, toothed similarly to the pulley, but on its internal surface, so that the points of the teeth of the pulley, face and approximate to those of the outer circle. An insulated wire runs over the pulley, which thus becomes a magnet whenever an electrical current is run through it, and ceases to be so from the very instant that the current is interrupted. While the current from the battery is active, each of the teeth of the pulley attracts its opposite on the rim, and if the current were to remain constant, each of these would remain in situ and no motion would be imparted to the wheel;to avoid this, a commutator, which is set in motion by the motor itself, regulates the passage of the electrical current through the wire and renders it intermittent. As soon as the apexes of the teeth have placed themselves into opposition, the current ceases and the teeth on the pulley proceed onward, when a fresh current forces them into a second opposition with the next set on the rim, and so on indefinitely, producing a very satisfactory rotary motion. The power being symmetrically disposed around the axis and in each tooth, there is very little friction on the bearings and no noise produced. The speed can be varied at will, and the simple pressure on a knob or button causes instantaneous stoppage. It is our conviction that electro-magnetic, or other smallmo-tors, fit for many domestic uses, could easily be devised, superior to even the simple machine of Cazal. We recommend this subject to the immediate attention of our mechanics and engineers. Should they succeed, they will have found not only a source of wealth for themselves, but they will have contributed their mite towards alleviating some of the thousand hidden miseries incident to our modern civilization, and will thus have acquired a right to the gratitude of their laboring brothers and sisters.
This article was originally published with the title "The Sewing Machine—Its Origin and Suggestions for Improvement" in Scientific American 20, 16, 246-247 (April 1869)