Friday 2 January 2015

Men of Yore: Barthélemy Thimonnier

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity.

Barthélemy Thimonnier

Barthélemy Thimonnier, (August 19, 1793 in L'Arbresle, Rhône - July 5, 1857 in Amplepuis), was a French inventor, who invented the first sewing machine that replicated sewing by hand.

Early life
In 1795, his family moved to Amplepuis. Thimonnier was the oldest of seven children. He studied for a while in Lyon, before going to work as a tailor in Panissières. Barthelemy Thimonnier married an embroideress in January 1822. In 1823, he settled in a suburb (or called a commutety) of Saint-Étienne and worked as a tailor there.

Invention of the sewing machine
In 1829, he invented the sewing machine and in 1830 he signed a contract with Auguste Ferrand, a mining engineer, who made the requisite drawings and submitted a patent application. The patent for his machine was issued on 17 July 1830 in the names of both men, supported by the French government. The same year, he opened (with partners) the first machine-based clothing manufacturing company in the world. It was supposed to create army uniforms. However, the factory was burned down, reportedly by workers fearful of losing work following the issuing of the patent.

A model of the machine is exhibited at the London Science Museum. The machine is made of wood and uses a barbed needle which passes downward through the cloth to grab the thread and pull it up to form a loop to be locked by the next loop.

The earliest sewing machine was actually patented by Thomas Saint in 1790. So Thimonnier's machine was not the first. Saint's contribution was not made public until 1874 when William Newton Wilson, himself a sewing machine manufacturer, found the drawings in the London Patent Office and built a machine which worked following some adjustments to the looper. So, in 1790 Thomas Saint had invented a machine with an overhanging arm, a feed mechanism (adequate for the short lengths of leather he intended it for), a vertical needle bar and a looper. The London Science Museum has the model that Wilson built from Saint's drawings.

Later life
Thimonnier then returned to Amplepuis and supported himself as a tailor again, while searching for improvements to his machine. He obtained new patents in 1841, 1845, and 1847 for new models of sewing machine. However, despite having won prizes at World Fairs, and being praised by the press, use of the machine did not spread. Thimonnier's financial situation remained difficult, and he died in poverty at the age of 64.
The Thimonnier sewing machine company, created after his death, existed up to the 20th century.


Like with many labour-saving contraptions it's not enough to have been the first to invent it you must also, and always, shout about it to the world (market it and publicise it like Samuel Colt did with his revolver), otherwise no-one will ever here about it.  It's why Barthélemy Thimonnier's invention took off while Thomas Saint's invention languished in the patents office collecting dust: Because Thimonnier marketed, publicised, and made use of his device on a large scale (a factory) and Saint did not.  That's why we have Thimonnier to thank as much as, if not slightly more than, Saint, because it was he who made the time/labour-saving device well known to the world.

If you've ever tried darning (sowing together) a hole in your socks then you'll know much time it takes to sow, how arduous, and laborious it is.  If we didn't have men like Thimonnier kicking around to invent labour-saving devices like sowing machines then tasks like darning socks, or sowing clothes together, would take an inordinate amount of time.  Time that could be better spent doing other things. 

All labour-saving devices are of great use to 'all' men, regardless of how connected a given man personally feels to them.  Just think of some of the labour saving devices that you have directly or indirectly used while eating breakfast:
- Flour mills which were used to grind the flour to make your toast.  (Which replaced hand-operated quern stones.)
- Dairy milking machines which were used to extract the milk for your coffee, and butter for your toast.  (Which replaced hand-milking.)
- Movable type which were used in the printing of the newspaper you read.  (Which replaced scribe/hand-written books.)
- Jacquard loom (another Frenchman's invention) which was used to make the patterned fabric that you're wearing.  (Which replaced hand-weaving).
- Sewing machines which were used to stitch together your clothes, carpet, curtains, table cloth etc.  (Which replaced hand-sowing.)

These Labour/Time-saving devices, and many more, have allowed men (both individually and collectively) to spend their daylight hours engaged in other activities, things besides grinding flour, copying books and sowing clothes together - to spend their time in ever increasingly productive activities.  It's fair to say that without machines like the the sowing machine man could not have walked on the moon.  It may seem like an audacious comment to make, but it's true.  Machines like Thimonnier's sowing machine meant that fewer tailors had to be employed making clothes; and because they didn't have to spend their time sowing clothes together they could study or work in other fields and thus become more productive workers (in purely economic terms).  Perhaps even inventing their own labour-saving devices or improving pre-existing labour-saving devices.  In turn it means that more men could study and learn and invent their own contraptions, or come up with their own theories, and experiments and all that malarky.  It's all good.  Labour-saving devices do nothing but good, ergo they, and their inventors, should get the credit they deserve every once in a while.

Bob Wallace summed it up well last week when he said " is here to stay. It's not going away, ever. It'll only advance, as it always has."; and even if that technology is only a humble little sowing machine then it's technology that we're certainly better off for having.


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