He certainly produced the first practical sewing machine, was the first man to offer machines for sale on a commercial basis and ran the first garment factory. For all that, he died in the poor house in 1857.
In America a quaker Walter Hunt invented, in 1833, the first machine which did not try to emulate hand sewing. It made a lock stitch using two spools of thread and incorporated an eye-pointed needle as used today. But again it was unsuccessful for it could only produce short, straight, seams.
Nine years later Hunt’s countryman, John Greenough, produced a working machine in which the needle passed completely through the cloth. Although a model was made and exhibited in the hope of raising capital for its manufacture, there were no takers.
Perhaps all the essentials of a modern machine came together in early 1844 when Englishman John Fisher invented a machine which although designed for the production of lace, was essentially a working sewing machine. Probably because of miss-filing at the patent office, this invention was overlooked during the long legal arguments between Singer and Howe as to the origins of the sewing machine.
Despite a further flurry of minor inventions in the 1840s, most Americans will claim that the sewing machine was invented by Massachusetts farmer Elias Howe who completed his first prototype in 1844 just a short time after Fisher.
A year later it was patented and Howe set about trying to interest the tailoring trade in his invention. He even arranged a competition with his machine set against the finest hand sewers in America. The machine won hands down but the world wasn’t ready for mechanised sewing and, despite months of demonstrations, he had still not made a single sale.
Desperately in debt Howe sent his brother Amasa to England with the machine in the hope that it would receive more interest on the other side of the Atlantic. Amasa could find only one backer, a corset maker William Thomas, who eventually bought the rights to the invention and arranged for Elias to come to London to further develop the machine.
The two did not work well together, each accusing the other of failing to honour agreements and eventually Elias, now almost penniless, returned to America. When he arrived home he found that the sewing machine had finally caught on and that dozens of manufacturers, including Singer, were busy manufacturing machines — all of which contravened the Howe patents.
A long series of law suits followed and were only settled when the big companies, including Wheeler & Wilson and Grover & Baker, joined together, pooled their patents, and fought as a unit to protect their monopoly.
Singer did not invent any notable sewing-machine advances, but he did pioneer the hire-purchase system and aggressive sales tactics.
Both Singer and Howe ended their days as multi-millionaires.
So the argument can go on about just who invented the sewing machine and it is unlikely that there will ever be agreement. What is clear, however, is that without the work of those long-dead pioneers, the dream of mechanised sewing would never have been realised.