Jan Ernst Matzeliger

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Jan Ernst Matzeliger
Jan ernst matzeliger.gif
Jan Ernst Matzeliger in 1885
Born (1852-09-15)15 September 1852
Paramaribo, Surinam
Died 24 August 1889(1889-08-24) (aged 36)
Lynn, Massachusetts, U.S.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger (September 15, 1852 – August 24, 1889) was a revolutionary in the shoe industry with the invention of the lasting machine. Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo (then Dutch Guyana, now Suriname). His father was a Dutch engineer of German descent living in Dutch Guyana. His mother was a Surinamese slave of African descent. At the age of ten, he was apprenticed in the machine shops run by his father, where Matzeliger developed an interest in machinery and mechanics. He had some interest in mechanics in his native country, but his efforts at inventing a shoe-lasting machine began in the United States after a life of working in a machinery shop. He settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 19 after working as a sailor. By 1877, he spoke adequate (just enough to get around since Dutch was his native tongue) English and had moved to Massachusetts.

In the early days of shoe making, shoes were made mainly by hand. For proper fit, the customer's feet had to be duplicated in size and form by creating a stone or wooden mold called a "last" from which the shoes were sized and shaped. Since the greatest difficulty in shoe making was the actual assembly of the soles to the upper shoe, it required great skill to tack and sew the two components together. It was thought that such intricate work could only be done by skilled human hands. As a result, shoe lasters held great power over the shoe industry. They would hold work stoppages without regard for their fellow workers' desires, resulting in long periods of unemployment for them.[1]

After a while, he went to work in the Harney Brothers Shoes factory. At the time, no machine could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole. This had to be done manually by a "hand laster"; a skilled one could produce 50 pairs in a ten-hour day.[2]

After five years of work, Matzeliger obtained a patent for his invention in 1883.[3] His machine could produce between 150 and 700 pairs of shoes a day, cutting shoe prices across the nation in half.[3] He sacrificed his health working exhausting hours on his invention and not eating over long periods of time, he caught a cold which quickly developed into tuberculosis.[4] His early death in Lynn, Massachusetts from tuberculosis meant he never saw the full profit of his invention. He died on August 24, 1889, three weeks shy of his 37th birthday.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger's invention was perhaps "the most important invention for New England." His invention was "the greatest forward step in the shoe industry," according to the church bulletin of The First Church of Christ (the same church that took him as a member) as part of a commemoration held in 1967 in his honor. Yet, because of the color of his skin, he was not mentioned in the history books until recently.[4][5]


  1. 274,207, 3/20/1883, Automatic method for lasting shoe
  2. 421,954, 2/25/1890, Nailing machine
  3. 423,937, 3/25/1890, Tack separating and distributing mechanism
  4. 459,899, 9/22/1891, Lasting machine
  5. 415,726, 11/26/1899, Mechanism for distributing tacks, nails, etc.
  6. 467,840, 7/24/1891, The second advanced lasting shoe machine


  1. ^ "Now Everyone Can Afford Decent Shoes.". N.d. xlhome9Web. 5 Dec 2012. < https://web.archive.org/web/20120821203314/http://www.users.fast.net/~blc/xlhome9.htm. Archived from the original on August 21, 2012. Retrieved December 5, 2012.  Missing or empty |title= (help)>.
  2. ^ "Jan Matzeliger". The Black Inventor Online Museum. 
  3. ^ a b Jan H. Liedhard. "No. 522: Jan Matzeliger (transcript of radio show Engines of Our Ingenuity episode)". University of Houston. 
  4. ^ a b "Now Everyone Can Afford Decent Shoes.". N.d. xlhome9Web. 5 Dec 2012. <http://www.users.fast.net/~blc/xlhome9.htm>.
  5. ^ "Jan Ernst Matzeliger 'Lasting Machine'". Lemelson-MIT. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved 29 February 2016. 

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