While sometimes not as grandiose, the greatest inventions are those that simplify day-to-day tasks for the average person. Jan Ernst Matzeliger, an inventor of Surinamese and Dutch descent, did just that when he introduced his shoe-lasting machine to the world in 1883.
Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo in 1852. The son of a Dutch engineer, he expressed interest in manufacturing at an early age, working in machine shops supervised by his father by the age of 10. At 19, he decided to settle in Philadelphia after taking up work as a sailor. There, he was able to find several small jobs working with his hands, eventually becoming the understudy of a local shoe cobbler and taking an interest in crafting footwear.
With his professional opportunities limited in Philadelphia, Matzeliger moved to Lynn, Mass. in 1877, seeking work in the town's booming shoe industry. At the time, Lynn was responsible for manufacturing half of the United States' shoes. Matzeliger initially struggled to find work in the city, but was eventually hired at the Harney Brothers shoe factory to sew shoes on the McKay sole-sewing machine. It was then that the wheels started turning for him.
In the Harney Brothers factory, he observed the processes for shoemaking closely, particularly the final step of lasting—the process of attaching the upper of a shoe to the sole. The most skilled laster could finish up to 50 pairs of shoes in a 10-hour work period—Matzeliger believed he could create a machine to do the same job more efficiently. Taking the extra step, he requested a job in the factory as a millwright, which allowed him to work directly with the machines in preparation of developing his own.
Using scrap materials such as metal, wood, nails, and even empty cigar boxes, Matzeliger pieced together prototype of shoe-lasting machines in his spare time. Over the years, he created various smaller shoe-related machines, but did not have the financial backing to properly patent and market them. As a result, townsmen who were aware of Matzeliger's innovations stole the ideas and marketed them as their own. However, always a forward-thinker, Matzeliger had a bigger vision for his work.
In the years that would follow, demand for the machine in Lynn skyrocketed. To rev up the supply, Delnow, Nichols, and Matzeliger brought in northeast machinery moguls George W. Brown and Sidney W. Winslow for funding. In exchange, Matzeliger gave up what was left of his patent and received a large stock in the new company known as the Consolidated Lasting Machine Company.
The enduring impact of Matzeliger's lasting machine cannot be understated. Once refined, the machine could produce up to 700 pairs of shoes in a 10-hour work day, a marked improvement over the maximum 50 pairs that could be hand-sewn in the same time prior to the invention. More importantly, employment opportunities opened up for workers and because of increased production, and the cost of shoes decreased significantly, allowing more people in normal income households to purchase high-quality footwear.
Unfortunately, Matzeliger wasn't around long enough to see just how revolutionary his machine would become. He contracted tuberculosis and passed away at the age of 36 on Aug. 24, 1889. Posthumously, he received honors for his creation, including an official government-issued Black History Month postage stamp bearing his face.
As we reflect on the many accomplishments and contributions of great Black pioneers this month, let us not forget Jan Ernst Matzeliger, whose invention spent many years absent from the history books, but was an early cog in a global industry that now generates more than $60 billion in revenue annually.