Breakthroughs and Dreams: The Story of Elias Howe

Feb 2, 2023

Breakthroughs and Dreams: The Story of Elias Howe

How Elias Howe’s dream led to a breakthrough in his invention

History has a number of accounts of scientists, musicians, writers, and others who had breakthroughs in their most important endeavors because of a dream. Today, I would like to share the story of Elias Howe, who is a 19th century American inventor of the sewing machine.

While the invention of the spinning jenny and the power loom during the second half of the 18th century made it possible to spin and weave threads of cotton into cloths at impressive speeds, the final step in the chain of an increasingly mechanized process of garment making remained a largely manual process for several decades. Seamstresses and tailors still had to take the mountains of machine-made cloth and turn them into clothing for their clients.

Successive attempts at inventing a machine that can sew at the same speed as the cloths that were being produced had not demonstrated sufficiently satisfactory results to be adopted at scale. For the cloth barons who were eager to take the industrial process to its full potential in the garment industry, a final and important piece of the puzzle was still missing.

The year was around 1840. Elias Howe was unable to work due to a disability but he had a family to support. His wife was helping the family to get by on odd jobs. Based on the conversations he overheard while working at a mariner’s tools and scientific equipment shop, Howe believed that if he were able to come up with a design for the sewing machine that can finally complete the mechanized process of garment making, it would bring him and his family tremendous wealth.

Financial pressure and investor expectations notwithstanding, Howe worked on the pernicious problem relentlessly for several years. Alas, Howe had a dream one night:

“…He was captured by a tribe of savages who took him prisoner before their king.
‘Elias Howe,’ roared the monarch, ‘I command you on pain of death to finish this machine at once.’

Cold sweat poured down his brow, his hands shook with fear, his knees quaked. Try as he would, the inventor could not get the missing figure in the problem over which he had worked so long. All this was so real to him that he cried aloud. In the vision he saw himself surrounded by dark-skinned and painted warriors, who formed a hollow square about him and led him to a place of execution.

Suddenly he noticed that near the heads of the spears which his guards carried, there were eye-shaped holes! He had solved the secret! What he needed was a needle with an eye near the point!”  ~ Quoted from the 1924 edition of A Popular History of American Invention, Vol II, by W. B. Kaempffert.

All of Howe’s rival inventors who were going for the big prize as Howe was were blinded by the conventional idea of a sewing needle. The thread transport hole has always been located at the blunt end of the needle where it is most convenient for the human hand. For the machine, however, just the opposite was needed: the thread transport hole must be at the point of the needle in order for the machine to work with it efficiently.

Howe had reached the destination that no one could for nearly 80 years, and the rest, as they say, is history. The garment making industrial revolution was now able to continue full steam ahead, and Howe profited immensely from his dedicated efforts to the invention of the lock-stitch sewing machine.

“This release of the archetypal creative impulse in dreams in direct proportion to the depth and sincerity of the dreamer’s waking efforts is also one of the reasons why I believe that wholeheartedness is the most important psychospiritual dynamic in developing consciousness, ‘individuating,’ and living.”

Jeremy Taylor
H. D. Lee

Article by H.D. Lee

Founder of Nomadic School. Committed to the spiritual adventure of his own life and the role of midwifing beauty, goodness, and truth into the world, H.D. Lee is here to share what he has learned through his teachers and peers in transpersonal psychology, spirituality, and the arts. Read more