Why the Beatles dedicated a film to Elias Howe is a bit of a mystery, but some of the more preposterous explanations actually tell us something about the life of the sewing machine inventor.
In 1965, the Beatles starred in a musical comedy called Help! The film ends with a credit:
This film is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Mr. Elias Howe, who, in 1846, invented the sewing machine.
The most probable explanation is that it was just absurdist British humor.
Other explanations help explain Howe’s struggles inventing the machine and getting credit for it.
First, a little about Elias Howe. He was born July 9, 1819, in Spencer, Mass., at a time when nearly everyone sewed by hand. Women made clothing, shirts, sheets and towels, and men knew how to repair a shirt.
At 16 he apprenticed in a factory in Lowell, Mass., but he lost his job in the Panic of 1837. Howe then found work in Boston in a machinist’s shop, and he began tinkering with a mechanical sewing machine.
Over the previous century, others had gotten patents for mechanical sewing devices, or at least designed working models. A French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, invented one in 1829. He found some partners and opened a factory to mass produce uniforms for the French Army. His competitors had other ideas. Two hundred French tailors rioted, ransacked the factory and threw the sewing machines out the windows.
A dream gave Elias Howe the inspiration for his invention of the sewing machine. He dreamt that cannibals surrounded him and prepared to cook him as they waved spears. When he awoke, he remembered the spears, which had holes in the shaft and moved up and down.
He invented the machine in 1845 and got a patent for it from New Hartford, Conn., in 1846. His innovation was the lock stitch, which uses one needle with a thread that goes up and down, picking up a thread from a bobbin or shuttle on the other side of the fabric.
Which brings us to the Beatles’ movie: In it, Ringo is surrounded by cult members preparing to sacrifice him. It’s been suggested that Howe’s dream inspired the scene. That is probably a stretch.
Perhaps even more of a stretch was suggested by Sherry Ann White in a book about John Lennon. It has to do with Isaac Singer.
Elias Howe couldn’t interest anyone in his machine in the United States, so he went to England. He came home broke to Cambridge, Mass., and went to work as a journeyman machinist.
But he found Isaac Singer selling a sewing machine using his lock-stitch mechanism. Howe took Singer to court, mortgaging his father’s farm to pay lawyers.
The case set off the great sewing machine war of the mid-19th century, with sewing machine makers suing each other over patent infringement on different parts of the invention.
Howe won his case in 1854 and Isaac Singer had to pay him $15,000, about $400,000 in today’s money.
“Did John know about his sewing machine message and the building of the Dakota eight years before he moved into the Dakota?” wrote White. “I believe he did.”
We said it was a stretch.
You’re a Rich Man
Two years after winning his case, Elias Howe joined with Isaac Singer and others to pool their patents and sell sewing machines around the world.
Howe received $5 for every machine sold in the United States and $1 for every machine sold overseas. That added up to $2 million, or about $400 million today.
He donated some of his wealth to buy equipment for the 17th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army during the Civil War. Howe enlisted in the regiment as a private, though he was 42 years old and in ill health. He served out his time as regimental postmaster, carrying messages back and forth.
After the war, Elias Howe built a sewing machine factory in Bridgeport, Conn. He died in 1867 of gout and a massive blood clot. A statue of him now stands in Bridgeport’s Seaside Park, created from his regiment’s training ground.
This story about Elias Howe was updated in 2023.