Howe spent his childhood and early adult years in Massachusetts where he apprenticed in a textile factory and then for a master mechanic.
Contrary to popular belief, he invented the sewing machine yet many other people, including Walter Hunt, had worked on the idea of such a machine before him. However, Howe refined these ideas into a functional machine and on September 10, 1846, he was awarded the first United States patent (#4750) for a sewing machine using a lockstitch design.
Howe was forced to defend his patent in 1854 because when he came back to the United States from a trip to Europe, he found that Isaac Singer had perfected his machine and was selling it with the same lockstitch that Howe had invented. He won the dispute and earned royalties. Howe contributed much of the money he earned to the Union Army during the Civil War. Howe served in the U.S. Army in the Civil War as a private from August 14, 1862, to July 19, 1865.
In 1865, he established the Howe Machine Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. His sewing machine won the gold medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1867.
Howe died at age 48. He was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York although some say he was buried in London, England. Both Singer and Howe ended their days as multi-millionaires. Notable descendants of Howe include Gordie Howe and Steve Howe. Howe was inducted in 2004 into the United States National Inventors Hall of Fame.