Isaac Merritt Singer (October 27, 1811 – July 23, 1875) was an inventor, actor, and entrepreneur. He made important improvements in the design of the sewing machine and was the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.
Isaac was married for the first time in 1830, to Catharine Maria Haley. After, they moved from Pittstown to New York City in about 1831, where they seem to have lived with her parents for a time. By the summer of 1833 they had again moved, this time to Otsego County, New York. Isaac had worked in his older brother's machine shop before marriage and learnt the machinists trade there; in Otsego in the village of Fly Creek Isaac was again working in a machine shop, this time owned by George Pomeroy.
Isaac had two children by Catharine: William, born in 1834, and Lillian, born in 1837. In 1835 he moved with Catherine and their young son William to New York City, working in a press shop. In 1836, he left the city as an agent for a company of players, touring through Baltimore, where he met Mary Ann Sponsler, to whom he proposed marriage. He returned with Mary Ann to New York in 1837. That year Isaac had two children born: his wife Catherine gave him Lillian, and Mary Ann gave him a son. His domestic life with Catharine did not prosper after this, but they were not officially divorced until 1860. After Mary Ann arrived in New York and found out that Singer was already married, she and Singer returned to Baltimore, presenting themselves as a married couple.
In 1844 Isaac took a job in a print shop in Fredericksburg, Ohio, but moved quickly on to Pittsburgh in 1846 to set up a woodshop for making wood type and signage. Here he developed and patented a "machine for carving wood and metal" on April 10, 1849.
At thirty-eight years old, with two wives and eight children, he packed up his family and moved back to New York City, hoping to market his wood-block cutting machine there. He obtained an advance to build a working prototype, and constructed one in the shop of A. B. Taylor & Co. However not long after the machine was built the steam boiler blew up at the shop, destroying the prototype. Before it was destroyed, Orson C. Phelps, owner of a machine shop in Boston had heard about it. He invited Singer to set up one of his machines in there.
Singer went to Boston in 1850 to set up machine the at Phelps' machine shop. Orders for Singer's wood cutting machine were not, however, forthcoming. Coincidentally Lerow and Blodgett sewing machines were being constructed in Phelps' machine shop. Phelps asked Singer to look at the sewing machines, which were difficult to use and difficult to produce. Singer noted that the sewing machine would be more reliable if the shuttle moved in a straight line rather than a circle, with a straight rather than a curved needle. Singer was able to obtain US Patent number 8294 on his improvements on August 12, 1851. Singer's prototype sewing machine became the first to work in a practical way.
Singer obtained financing from George B. Zieber, and formed a partnership with Phelps and Zieber to found the "Jenny Lind Sewing Machine Company", named for the opera singer Jenny Lind. The company was soon renamed to as "I. M. Singer & Co.", and the machine became known as a Singer.
Singer did not invent the sewing machine, and never claimed to have done so. By 1850, when Singer saw his first sewing machine, it had been "invented" four times. All sewing machines before Walter Hunt's produced a chain stitch, which had the disadvantage of easily unravelling. Hunt's machine produced a lock stitch, as did all subsequent machines including Lerow and Blodgett's, which Singer in turn improved in Phelps's shop. Elias Howe independently developed a sewing machine and obtained a patent on September 10, 1846.
War broke out between Howe and Singer, with each claiming patent primacy. Singer set out to discover that Howe's improvements had been reinventions of existing technology, and found one of Hunt's old machines, which indeed created a lock-stitch with a shuttle. Hunt applied in 1853 for a patent, claiming priority to Howe's patent, issued some seven years earlier. A lawsuit, Hunt v. Howe, came to trial in 1854, and was resolved in Howe's favor. Howe then brought suit to stop Singer from selling Singer machines, and protracted litigation ensued.
Sewing machines had until now been industrial machines, made for tailors, but smaller machines began to be marketed for home use. I. M. Singer expanded into the European market, establishing a factory in Clydebank, near Glasgow, controlled by the parent company, becoming one of the first American-based multinational corporations, with agencies in Paris and Rio de Janeiro.
With Isaac in London, Mary Ann began setting about securing a financial claim to his assets by filing documents detailing his infidelities, claiming that though she had never been formally married to Isaac, that they were in fact wed under Common Law (by living together for seven months after Isaac had been divorced from his first wife Catherine). Eventually a settlement was made, but no divorce was granted. However, she asserted that she was free to marry, and indeed married John E. Foster. Isaac, meanwhile, had renewed acquaintance with Isabella Eugenie Boyer, a Frenchwoman he had lived with in Paris when he was staying there in 1860. She left her husband, and married Isaac under the name of Isabella Eugenie Sommerville, on June 13, 1863, while she was pregnant.
In 1863, I. M. Singer & Co. was dissolved by mutual consent, with the business continued as "The Singer Manufacturing Company," enabling the reorganization of financial and management responsibilities. Singer no longer actively participated in the firm's day-to-day management, but served as a member of the Board of Trustees (even though he now lived in Europe) and was a major stockholder.
He now began to increase his new family: he would eventually have six children with his wife Isabella. Unable, probably because of Isaac's chequered marital past, to enter New York society, the family emigrated to Paris, never to return to the United States. Fleeing the Franco-Prussian War, they resided first in London, then in Paignton, (near Torquay) on the Devon coast where he built a large house, Oldway Mansion. He brought some of his other children to live there. Nine days after the wedding of his daughter Alice Merritt to William Alonso Paul La Grove, Isaac Singer died of "an affection of the heart and inflammation of the wind-pipe." He was interred in Torquay cemetery.
Isaac's 18th child Winnaretta Singer married Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard in 1887, when she was 22. After annulment of this marriage in 1891, she married Prince Edmond de Polignac in 1893. She would become a prominent patron of French avant-garde music, e.g., Erik Satie composed his Socrate as one of her commissions (1918). As a lesbian she became involved with Violet Trefusis from 1923 on. Another of Isaac's daughters, Isabelle-Blanche (born 1869) married Jean, duc Decazes (Daisy Fellowes was their daughter). Isabelle committed suicide in 1896. A brother to Winnaretta and Isabelle, Paris Singer, had a child by Isadora Duncan. Another brother, Washington Singer, became a substantial donor to the University College of the southwest of England, which later became the University of Exeter; one of the university's buildings is named in his honour.