1852 – 1889 Jan Matzeliger invented a shoe manufacturing machine that was, at the time, considered impossible. He enabled the creation of the modern shoe industry and billions of dollars of economic value, and affordable shoes for ordinary people everywhere.
Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (now called Suriname) in South America in 1852. His white father was a representative of the Dutch government, supervising factories in the colony. His black mother was a resident of Suriname, by some accounts a slave. Matzeliger demonstrated strong mechanical aptitude from an early age, and visited factories with his father. He became an apprentice machinist at age 10 and a master by the age of 19. He then set out to see the world and spent two years on a merchant ship. Docking in the U.S. in 1873, Matzeliger saw the industrial intensity of Philadelphia. Assuming he could find work easily, he stayed.
But the young black man who spoke little English could not find employment. African Americans from a local church group took pity on him and helped him make his way. He began finding odd jobs and finally work with a cobbler, learning about shoes. On the cobbler’s advice, he journeyed to Lynn, Massachusetts in 1877, which then produced over half of the shoes made in the U.S. Still speaking only rudimentary English, Matzeliger again had difficulty finding work, made few if any friends, and was rebuffed by several local churches which did not accept Blacks.
He eventually was taken on as an apprentice in a shoe factory, operating a McKay sole-sewing machine which partly automated the process. But as Matzeliger soon observed, one crucial step could only be performed by hand: joining the upper part of the shoe to the sole, around a mold of a human foot called a “last.” The expert workmen who performed this task, called “hand lasters,” held enormous power over the entire process, and therefore over the industry, their co-workers, and prices for finished shoes. Organized as a union, the Company of Shoemakers, they staged work stoppages to demonstrate their control and enforce high wages. A hand laster could only complete 50 pairs of shoes in a standard 10-hour working day. But they were convinced that no machine could duplicate their skill, and the industry (which had already spent large sums attempting to solve this problem) agreed. In the words of the Company of Shoemakers: “No man can build a machine that will last shoes and take away the job of the laster….”
Matzeliger took on the challenge. Working 10-hour days, studying English at night, and then adding to that readings in physics and mechanical science, he was fortunately accepted by the North Congregational Church and joined an affiliated young adult group, teaching Sunday School there. He began work on a primitive model for a lasting machine. He observed the hand lasters, studying their techniques and developing mechanical means for mimicking their actions. He spent every penny he could save on materials and parts, and still relied on cigar boxes, scraps of wood, and discarded nails and wire. After a long period of basic development, he felt that he had a workable solution but required additional capital for better materials and parts. However, he also neglected to eat, and the rigors of this period resulted in a weakened condition and poor health for the inventor.
From Prototype to Production
While Matzeliger had labored in obscure secret, news of his invention had begun to spread. He endured the mockery of the hand lasters, who still believed such a machine was impossible and attempted to dissuade him from the pursuit. He also received exploitative offers of anywhere from $50 to $1,500 for the rights to his design. Holding out for a more favorable arrangement, Matzeliger eventually found two investors who contributed adequate funding in return for two-thirds ownership, leaving the inventor with one-third. This infusion of capital enabled him to complete a second and third working prototype, and to file for a patent in 1882.
The 15-page document was so complex that the patent examiners couldn’t understand it or believe that a machine could perform these tasks. A representative was sent to Lynn to observe the prototype for himself. In March 1883, the U.S. Patent Office granted Patent Number 274,207 to Matzeliger for a “Lasting Machine.” Over the course of the next two years, he would perfect the basic design to the point where a Matzeliger Lasting Machine could make 700 pairs of shoes a day, 14 times the number previously made by hand. Demand for the machine grew quickly. A company was formed in 1889, The Consolidated Lasting Machine Company, in which Matzeliger retained substantial ownership. The United Shoe Machine Company subsequently purchased the patent, leading to a 50 percent reduction in the price of shoes, a doubling of wages for shoe factory workers, and improved working conditions. The company would eventually be worth $1 billion.
Matzeliger earned substantial wealth from the success of his invention, but would not live long to enjoy it. With his poor constitution, a cold developed into tuberculosis and led to his death on August 24, 1889 at the early age of 37. With no wife or heirs, he left most of his estate to the church that had accepted and befriended him. Matzeliger also left a legacy of successfully meeting an “impossible” challenge, making shoes affordable, and creating a large number of jobs and a global industry. All shoe manufacturing today uses the mechanical principles he developed. He was nevertheless absent from the historical record for decades. The town of Lynn, Massachusetts named a bridge after him in 1984 and installed a statue of Matzeliger downtown, and his church commemorated him in 1967.