Walter Hunt (1796-1859) was a nineteenth century inventor who created many practical things, as well as a few unusual ones. Among his many inventions, Hunt is best known for creating the safety pin and making the first workable sewing machine. However, he failed to profit from any of his inventions.
Walter Hunt was the first of thirteen children born to Sherman and Rachel Hunt on July 29, 1796 in Martinsburg, New York. As a child he was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. In 1817 Hunt earned a degree in masonry. He married Polly Loucks and the couple had four children together.
Hunt worked primarily as a farmer in a milling community. A textile mill dominated the economy of Lowville, a small town in Lewis County, New York. Most of Hunt's family and friends, including his younger brother Hiram Hunt, were in the business of spinning wool and cotton. When the mill did poorly, it affected the entire community. Hunt had exceptional mechanical ability that he put to use as the need arose. For example, his talents enabled the flax mill owner Willis Hoskins and community member Ziba Knox to obtain a patent on a spinning and roping machine. Again in 1826 when Hoskins threatened to cut his employees' wages because the cost of flax had fallen, Hunt convinced Hoskins that his poor profits were the result of an inefficient mill and not the fault of the workers. To improve efficiency, Hunt suggested that they build a better flax spinner. Several months later Hunt created the new machine that was patented on June 22, 1826. After receiving the patent, Hunt traveled to New York City for the first time in his life to raise the capital needed to manufacture the new machine. Instead he sold the patent outright, which would become Hunt's pattern of doing business.
During Hunt's first day in New York City he witnessed an accident where a carriage ran over a little girl. He was extremely disturbed by the incident and the fact that this was not a rare occurrence in the city. When he returned to Lowville, he decided to think of a way to help prevent these accidents. While drivers had horns to blow to warn pedestrians that they were coming, they rarely used them because they needed to keep both hands on the horse reins during an emergency. Therefore, Hunt devised a metal gong with a hammer that could be operated by foot. On July 30, 1827 Hunt patented his new invention. When he decided to return to New York to sell his new invention, he took his family with him. He sold his home and belongings and moved his family to the city. After much work, Hunt was finally able to sell his coach alarm. Once again he sold his idea outright and therefore did not profit from further sales of the product.
Hunt had moved his family to a modest home and needed a steady income to support them. In late 1827 an acquaintance suggested that he go into the real estate business. While Hunt supported his family as a land speculator, he continued to invent things as the need arose. His next creation was a knife sharpener. In the country the Hunts had used a grindstone to sharpen knives, but a grindstone was too large and expensive for city living. Hunt created a better and more practical sharpener that even included a protective guard. He patented the device on February 19, 1829.
Hunt's next inventions included a machine to make rope patented on June 11, 1829, a castor globe to move furniture more easily patented on February 8, 1834, and a coal heating stove that directed heat equally in all directions, patented on February 8, 1834. For all of these inventions, Hunt sold the rights to the products in order to pay his debts, but he never received any profits from future sales.
Hunt's next invention was probably his most famous, even though it did not bring him much glory while he was alive. In 1833 Hunt invented the first workable sewing machine. As Joseph Nathan Kane explained in Necessity's Child: The Story of Walter Hunt, America's Forgotten Inventor, "With nothing to serve as a basis or model, with no other machine from which parts could be obtained, he evolved a plan for mechanical sewing which was so revolutionary that had he even dared to suggest it before completion of his model he would have been scoffed at and regarded as insane." Hunt's revolutionary machine was well-received by the public, but he was reluctant to try to manufacture it. He had not really profited from the Globe Stove Company and was reluctant to put his family in debt again. Instead he sold the rights to the machine to George A. Arrowsmith. Hunt's machine was made of wood that splintered during use, so Arrowsmith hired Hunt's brother, Adoniram, to make another model out of iron. Arrowsmith did not patent the machine because he first wanted to raise the capital for its manufacture. However, his plans did not materialize because of a financial crisis in 1834, followed by a cholera epidemic, and later labor disputes. Although the machine impressed people, they were afraid that it would put seamstresses out of business. Therefore, there was some reluctance to finance such a project. In the end, Arrowsmith never patented the machine, which proved to be a mistake.
More than a decade later the Industrial Revolution was underway and manufacturers were looking for ways to mechanize the needlework industry. On February 21, 1846 John James Greenough received the first United States patent for a sewing machine. Several other patents followed, but none produced a practical machine. On May 27, 1846 Elias Howe, Jr., with the financial backing of George Fisher, obtained the fifth United States patent for improvements to the sewing machine. Howe could not raise the capital necessary to manufacture his machine in either the U.S. or England and he fell into debt trying. While he was attempting to sell his machine, other American inventors were producing their own machines. Howe claimed that he had created the first workable sewing machine and the later machines were infringing on his patent rights. More specifically, Howe claimed to have created the first machine to sew a lock stitch, using two threads. Howe began to sue manufacturers for royalties. Hunt was involved in the ensuing trials as defense attorneys argued that Hunt's invention really preceded Howe's and therefore Howe's patent claims were not valid. Howe won the initial lawsuits, but the manufacturers refused to give in to his claims. More lawsuits followed for over a decade, with the most well-known defendant being I.M. Singer and Company.
Hunt was under a lot of pressure from his family and friends to challenge Howe's claim to the sewing machine and share some of the financial benefits. On April 2, 1853 he submitted the paperwork to the U.S. Patent Office for his 1834 sewing machine to show that his invention preceded Howe's machine. The decision from the Patent Office was issued on June 10, 1854. It recognized Hunt's invention as preceding Howe's, but it did not grant a patent because Hunt had not applied for one prior to Howe's application. Hunt was given public credit for his invention, but Howe's patent remained valid because of a technicality.
While the controversy between Hunt and Howe continued in the courts, Hunt received another patent for improving the sewing machine on June 27, 1854. Hunt noticed that all of the sewing machine models at the time were flawed because the material had to be pushed through the vibrating needle. A new user would not know how fast or how slow to push the material and the machine would often jam. Hunt created a rotating circular top that allowed the cloth to be fed through the needle at an even rate and therefore fixed the problem of jamming. Hunt's invention did not catch on quickly, but he did prove that he had the mechanical ability and the creativity to improve upon the sewing machine, even though he could not capitalize on it.
During and after the sewing machine controversy, Hunt continued to create new inventions. Between 1836 and 1869 he received patents, some issued by his family even after his death for a saw for cutting down trees, a flexible spring attachment for belts and suspenders, and an attachment for boats to cut through ice. He also received patents for a machine for making nails, hob nails for boots and shoes, an inkstand, a fountain pen, a dress pin, bottle stoppers, paper shirt collars, and a non-explosive lamp. Hunt developed a repeating gun and cartridge that was eventually adapted by Smith and Wesson. He invented many other things for which he did not receive a patent, including an antipodean apparatus that could be attached to shoes so a person could walk upside down on a ceiling. The contraption was used by circus performers as late as 1937.
The product that Hunt patented as a dress pin is what is commonly known as a safety pin. Hunt was anxiously trying to figure out how to pay back a $15 debt. While discussing his dilemma with a friend, Hunt was nervously twisting a piece of wire in his hand when he suddenly came up with the idea for a pin. Hunt's creation improved upon existing safety pins in two important ways. First, the point was completely covered when the pin was closed so it was truly safe. Second, Hunt added a circular twist at the bend of the pin to act as a spring and hold it in place. Hunt took his new invention to a manufacturer named Jonathan Richardson and sold the rights to him for only $100. Hunt was able to pay off his debt, but he once again could not profit from future sales of his product.
Hunt continued to work on his inventions until his death. He died on June 8, 1859 of pneumonia in his workshop in New York City. Just before his death, Hunt at least had the satisfaction, if not the financial reward, of finally profiting from his sewing machine. In 1858 Isaac Singer agreed to pay Hunt $50,000 for his original design to end the patent controversy. However, Hunt died before Singer made any payments. Hunt's family was able to capitalize on another of his inventions after his death, namely the paper shirt collar. In 1875 Hunt's son, George W. Hunt of New Jersey, reached a settlement with the Union Paper Collar Company for $5,000 plus expenses in cash, $50,000 in company stock, and ten percent of all royalties for the use of Walter Hunt's invention.
Although Hunt did not die a rich man, he was well-respected. On June 13, 1859 the New York Tribune wrote the following of Hunt's death: "For more than forty years, he has been known as an experiment in the arts. Whether in mechanical movements, chemistry, electricity or metallic compositions, he was always at home: and, probably in all, he has tried more experiments than any other inventor."
Garrison, Webb B., Why Didn't I Think of That? From Alarm Clocks to Zippers, Prentice-Hall, 1977.
Kane, Joseph Nathan, Necessity's Child: The Story of Walter Hunt, America's Forgotten Inventor, McFarland and Company, Inc., 1997.
Walter Hunt American Inventor, Clinton N. Hunt, 1935.
Wulffson, Don L., Extraordinary Stories Behind the Invention of Ordinary Things, Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard Books, 1981.
Wulffson, Don L., The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle and Other Surprisong Stories about Inventions, Cobblehill Books/Dutton, 1997.
"Invention of the Safety Pin," http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventions/story019.html (December 13, 2000).
"Walter Hunt: Inventor of the Safety Pin," http://inventors.about.com/science/inventors/library/inventors/blhunt-pin.html (December 13, 2000).