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Success and Failure Stories of Patent Strategies in the UK: The Tale of Early Sewing Machines

In the dynamic world of innovation, securing a patent can mean the difference between groundbreaking success and disheartening failure, as shown by the success and failure stories of patent strategies in the development of the early sewing machines. This is particularly evident in the history of the sewing machine, a vital invention that transformed both domestic life and the garment industry. This blog explores the contrasting fates of two key figures in the development of the sewing machine—Isaac Singer, whose strategic use of patents led to monumental success, and Thomas Saint, who became largely unknown due to ineffective patenting. We will also discuss the importance of seeking professional patent advice, such as from Robertson IP, to protect your inventions effectively.

The Success Story: Isaac Singer and the Sewing Machine Patent Pool

Isaac Singer’s story is an example of how strategic patenting can drive innovation and market dominance. Singer, though not the original inventor of the sewing machine, made significant improvements to existing designs, including a thread controller and a combination of a vertical needle with a horizontal sewing surface. He patented these enhancements in 1851, catalysing the sewing machine’s evolution and his rise in the industry​. (Smithsonian Magazine)​​ (American Heritage)​.

The sewing machine market in the mid-19th century was a contentious battlefield, marked by numerous patent disputes. Elias Howe, who held the patent for the lockstitch mechanism demanded exorbitant licensing fees, creating a “patent thicket,” that hindered the development and sale of sewing machines​ (Smithsonian Magazine)​.

The breakthrough came with the formation of the Sewing Machine Combination in 1856, the first patent pool. This alliance, comprising Howe, Singer, and other key players like Grover and Baker, and Wheeler and Wilson, allowed for the sharing of crucial patents. This collaboration significantly reduced licensing fees and facilitated innovation, enabling the rapid advancement and widespread adoption of sewing machines. The reduction in licensing fees from $25 to $5 per machine allowed more manufacturers to enter the market, driving competition and innovation​ (Smithsonian Magazine)​​ (History Today)​.

Singer’s business acumen shone through innovative sales strategies. The company pioneered the installment payment plan, making sewing machines affordable to a broader audience. Singer’s door-to-door sales tactics and engaging demonstrations at fairs and showrooms significantly boosted sales. These strategies, combined with effective patent management, established the Singer brand as synonymous with sewing machines, leading to market dominance​ (Smithsonian Magazine)​​ (American Heritage)​.

 The Failure Story: Thomas Saint’s Overlooked Invention

In stark contrast to Singer’s success is the story of Thomas Saint, a London-based cabinet maker. In 1790, Saint patented a machine designed for stitching, quilting, and sewing. Despite being the first to patent a sewing machine, his invention did not gain commercial traction due to poor documentation and a lack of practical demonstration. Saint’s failure to effectively promote and protect his invention meant it was largely ignored, and his contribution to the sewing machine’s development was overshadowed by later inventors​ (Smithsonian Magazine)​.

Saint’s story highlights the importance of not only securing patents but also ensuring that the invention is adequately promoted and brought to market. His missed opportunity underscores the critical role of effective patent management and marketing in achieving commercial success.

The Importance of Professional Patent Guidance

The contrasting outcomes of Singer and Saint illustrate the critical role of strategic patenting, as highlighted by the success and failure stories of patent strategies. Here are key reasons why inventors should seek professional patent advice:

  • Expertise and Experience: Patent professionals possess the knowledge and experience necessary to navigate the complex patent application process. They understand legal requirements and can ensure that your application is complete and accurate, reducing the risk of rejection.
  • Strategic Advice: Professionals can provide valuable advice on structuring your patent to maximise protection. This includes identifying which aspects of your invention are patentable and how to describe them in a way that meets legal standards.
  • Avoiding Common Pitfalls: One of the biggest mistakes inventors make is disclosing their inventions before securing a patent. Public disclosure can render an invention unpatentable as it no longer meets the requirement of being new. A patent professional can guide you on how to protect your invention until your patent is secured.
  • Patent Searches: Conducting a thorough patent search is a crucial step in the application process. This helps ensure that your invention is indeed novel and does not infringe on existing patents. Professionals have access to extensive databases and the expertise to conduct comprehensive searches.
  • Drafting the Application: Writing a patent application requires precise technical and legal knowledge. Patent professionals can draft your application in a way that clearly defines the scope of your invention and meets the requirements of patent offices. This is where our expertise come in as our founder Christopher Robertson worked at the patent office for seven years and knows the ins and outs of the system.

 The Dangers of Public Disclosure

Public disclosure of an invention before securing a patent can have devastating consequences and can be key to success. This includes publishing articles, giving presentations, or even casual conversations. Once an invention is disclosed, it is no longer considered new, which can prevent it from being patented.

Thomas Saint’s story serves as a cautionary tale. His lack of effective promotion and protection of his invention led to its neglect, allowing others to capitalise on the concepts he developed​ (Smithsonian Magazine)​. To avoid such pitfalls, inventors should seek professional guidance early in the process. We always offer a free confidential consultation.

The Process of Securing a Patent

  • Initial Consultation: The process typically begins with a consultation, where you discuss your invention with a patent professional. They will assess the invention’s patentability and advise on the next steps. We offer this as a free consultation and it is best to seek this advice as early as possible.
  • Patent Search: A comprehensive patent search is conducted to ensure that your invention is novel. This involves searching through existing patents and publications to identify any prior art that might affect your application’s success. This is not a legal requirement but highly recommended. See our previous Blog; Understanding Patents; what they are and how they work for more details around this.
  • Drafting the Application: Once the search is complete, the patent professional will draft your application. This includes a detailed description of the invention, claims that define the scope of protection, and any necessary drawings or diagrams.
  • Filing the Application: The completed application is then filed with the relevant patent office. This marks the start of the patent examination process, where the application is reviewed to ensure it meets all legal requirements.
  • Examination and Response: During the examination process, the patent office may raise objections or request further information. Your patent professional will respond to these requests and make any necessary amendments to the application.
  • Grant of Patent: If the application is successful, the patent office will grant the patent, giving you exclusive rights to your invention for a specified period.

 Choosing the Right Professional

When selecting a patent professional, it is essential to choose someone with the right expertise and experience. Look for professionals who have a strong track record in securing patents in your industry. Robertson IP, for example, has a team of experienced professionals who specialise in a wide range of fields and can provide tailored advice and support throughout the patenting process.

Conclusion of success and failure stories of patent strategies

Securing a patent is a critical step in protecting your invention and ensuring its commercial success. The process can be complex and challenging, but with the right professional guidance, you can navigate it successfully. By contacting a professional body like Robertson IP, you can ensure that your invention is adequately protected and that you avoid common pitfalls such as public disclosure. Remember, a well-structured patent can be a powerful tool in securing your competitive advantage and achieving long-term success.

Whether you are an individual inventor or a company with a team of innovators, seeking professional advice early in the process can make all the difference.

If you have any questions or need assistance with the patent process, contact us at Robertson IP for expert guidance and support.

We always offer a free consultation.


  1. Smithsonian Magazine. “How Singer Won the Sewing Machine War.” Link.
  2. History Today. “Sewing Machines: Liberation or Drudgery for Women?” Link.
  3. American Heritage. “Isaac Singer And His Wonderful Sewing Machine.” Link.

We love writing about history and eccentric patents and if you enjoyed this blog we also think you would enjoy this interesting story of Alfred Pedrick’s eccentric patents.

Success and Failure Stories of Patent Strategies in the UK

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