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Jan Ernst Matzeliger
February 24, 2004
11-1 pd 8
Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana, the son of a Negro woman and a Dutch engineer. At the age of 10, he stated working in his fatherís shop. He showed a remarkable ability to repair complex machinery and often did so when accompanying his father to a factory. When he turned 19, he decided to venture away from home to explore other parts of the world. For two years he worked aboard an East Indian merchant ship and was able to visit several countries. In 1873, Jan decided to stay in the United States for a while, landing in Pennsylvania. Although he spoke very little English, he was good with his hands and mechanically inclined, therefore he was able to get small jobs in order to earn a living.
At some point he began working for a cobbler and became interested in the making of shoes. Still unable to speak more than rudimentary English, Matzeliger had a difficult time finding work in Lynn. After considerable time, he was able to begin working as a show apprentice in a shoe factory. He operated a McKay sole-sewing machine, which was used to attach different parts of a shoe together. Unfortunately, no machines existed that could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole.
After working all day Matzeliger took classes at night to learn English. Soon, he was able to read well enough to study books on physics and mechanical science. This enabled him to a number of inventions. Lacking sufficient money, he was unable to patent these inventions and watched helplessly as other people claimed to have created the devises and received the financial rewards they brought. Matzeliger did not despair over these situations because he was already thinking of a more important invention - the shoe laster.
Watching hand lasters all day, Matzeliger began understanding how they were able to join the upper parts of a shoe to the sole. At night he sat devising methods for imitating the mannerisms of the hand lasters and sketched out rough drawings of a machine that might work in the same manner.
Soon, Matzeliger began putting together a crude working model of his invention. Lacking the proper materials, he used whatever scraps he could find, including cigar boxes, discarded pieces of wood, scrap wire, nails and paper. After six months, he felt he was on the right track but knew he needed better materials in order to take the next steps.
Although he attempted to keep his invention a secret, people found out, including the expert hand lasters he was trying to "compete" with. These people criticized and ridiculed him and tried to dissuade him pursuing his goal. He continued on, however, and decided to try to raise money in order to improve his working model. He was offered $50.00 to sell the device he had created up to that point but turned it down, knowing that if people were interested in buying, he was on the right track.
As he improved the device, other offers of money came in, some as high as $1,500.00. Matzeliger could not bear to part with the device he had put so much work into creating so he held out until he reached a deal to sell a 66% interest in the devices to two investors, retaining the other third interest for himself. With the new influx of cash, Jan finished his second and third models of the machine. At this point he applied for a patent for the device.
Sadly, Matzeliger would only enjoy his success for a short time, as he was afflicted with tuberculosis in 1886 and died on August 24, 1889 at the age of 37. As a result of his work, shoe-manufacturing capabilities increased, as did efficiency. This allowed for lower prices for consumers and more jobs for workers. Matzeliger left behind a legacy of tackling what was thought to be an impossible task, making shoes affordable for the masses.
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Jan Ernst Matzeliger, Footwear, Shoe, Sewing machine, Invention
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