The modern safety pin was the invention of Walter Hunt. For those of you who don’t know what a safety pin is; it is an object commonly used to fasten clothing (i.e. cloth diapers) together. The very first pins used for clothing date back to the Mycenaeans during the 14th century BCE and were called fibulae.
Walter Hunt (1796 – 1859)
Born in upstate New York, Walter Hunt earned a degree in masonry. He worked as a farmer in the mill town of Lowville, NY, and designed more efficient machinery for the local mills. He received his first patent in 1826, after moving to New York City to work as a mechanic.
Walter Hunt’s other inventions included: a forerunner of the Winchester repeating rifle, a successful flax spinner, knife sharpener, streetcar bell, hard-coal-burning stove, artificial stone, road sweeping machinery, velocipedes, ice ploughs and mail making machinery. He is also well known for inventing a commercially unsuccessful sewing machine.
Walter Hunt – Safety Pin
The safety pin was invented while Walter Hunt was twisting a piece of wire, trying to think of something that would help him pay off a fifteen dollar debt. He later sold his patent rights to the safety pin for four hundred dollars to the man that he owed the money to.
On April 10, 1849, Walter Hunt was granted US patent #6,281 for his safety pin. Hunt’s pin was made from one piece of wire, which was coiled into a spring at one end and a separate clasp and point at the other end, allowing the point of the wire to be forced by the spring into the clasp.
It was the first pin to have a clasp and spring action and Hunt claimed that it was designed to keep fingers safe from injury – hence the name.
Walter Hunt – Sewing Machine
In 1834, Walter Hunt built America’s first sewing machine, which was also the first eye pointed needle sewing machine. He later lost interest in patenting his sewing machine, because he believed the invention would cause unemployment.
Competing Sewing Machines
The eye pointed needle sewing machine was later re-invented by Elias Howe of Spencer, Massachusetts and patented by Howe in 1846.
In both Walter Hunt’s and Elias Howe’s sewing machine a curved eye pointed needle that passed the thread through the fabric in an arc motion; on the other side of the fabric a loop was created; and a second thread carried by a shuttle running back and forth on a track passed through the loop creating a lockstitch.
Elias Howe’s design was copied by Isaac Singer and others, leading to extensive patent litigation. A court battle in the 1850s showed conclusively Howe was not the originator of the eye pointed needle and gave credit to Walter Hunt.
The court case was started by Elias Howe against Isaac Merritt Singer, the then largest manufacturer of sewing machines. Singer disputed Howe’s patent rights, by claiming that the invention was already some 20 years old and that Elias Howe should not have been able to claim royalties for it. However, since Walter Hunt had abandoned his sewing machine and not patented it, Elias Howe’s patent was upheld by the courts in 1854.
Isaac Singer’s machine was somewhat different its needle moved up and down, rather than sideways, and it was powered by a treadle rather than a hand crank. However, it used the same lockstitch process and a similar needle. Elias Howe died in 1867, the year his patent expired.