When Elias Howe was awarded his United States Patent 4750 in September of 1846, he had officially solved a problem that inventors had been working on for over fifty years. Howe's patent was the first one awarded for a sewing machine that could produce a lockstitch. A lockstitch is made when two threads, one on the bobbin that is underneath the material being sewn and one in the needle that is above the material, combine, though the material and "lock" the thread in the stitch, so it does not come undone. Howe designed the needle in his machine, so that the eye of the needle was at the bottom of the needle, close to the material. This created less tension in the thread, which kept the thread from breaking. Another component that made Howe's machine successful was an automatic feed that helped guide the material being sewn under the needle and above the bobbin.
As a young man Howe in a textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts. Then in 1838, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to apprentice under Ari Davis. Davis was a mechanic who specialized in making and repairing precision instruments such as chronometers. During this apprenticeship, combining the knowledge of precision machinery that he was gaining and the knowledge he had gained working in the textile mill, Howe began working on his mechanical device that could sew stitches automatically.
It took eight years of designing, building and perfecting his machine, before Howe had a working model.
The first machine he designed, stitched 250 stitches per minute. Before Howe's invention, everything had to be sewn at a much slower pace and by hand. Women spent the majority of their time, either making clothes for their family or mending them, because the original hand stitching hand not been strong enough. In the early years, many manufacturers would copy parts of his designs to incorporate into their own version of the sewing machine. The manufacturers refused to pay Howe any royalties for using parts of his patented design. Howe spent nine years fighting legal battles against these manufacturers before he finally won the right to royalties for his designs. Once the legal battles ended, in the next twelve years, Howe earned over 2 million dollars from his patent. During the Civil War, he donated large portions of his wealth to outfit infantries units in the United States Army with equipment and clothing.