Walter Hunt (inventor)

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Walter Hunt
Walter Hunt.jpg
Born(1796-07-29)July 29, 1796
DiedJune 8, 1859(1859-06-08) (aged 62)
Known for
Spouse(s)Polly Loucks (m1814)

Walter Hunt (July 29, 1796 – June 8, 1859) was an American mechanical engineer. Through the course of his work he became known for being a prolific inventor. He got first involved with mechanical innovations in a linseed producing community in New York state that had flax mills. While in New York City to promote his inventions, one thing led to another and he got involved in inventing the streetcar gong that is used throughout the United States. This then led him to invent other useful items like the safety pin, sewing machine, repeating rifle, and fountain pen. About two dozen of his inventions are used today in basically the same form as he had patented it. In spite of his many useful innovative creations he never became wealthy since he sold off most of his patent rights to others at low prices with no future royalties. Others made millions of dollars from his devices, one in particular was the safety pin.

Early life and education[edit]

Walter Hunt was born July 29, 1796, in the town of Martinsburg, in Lewis County in the state of New York. He was the first born child of Sherman Hunt and Rachel Hunt. He had twelve siblings. Hunt received his childhood education in a one-room schoolhouse. Hunt was muscular, tall and slender with a ruddy complexion.[1] He married Polly Loucks in 1814 and they had four children. Hunt went to college and earned a master's degree in masonry in 1817 at the age of 21.[2]

Mid life[edit]

Hunt worked as a farmer while in the Lewis County milling community of Lowville, New York. A textile mill in the small town was the basic means of work for the people of the area. Most of Hunt's friends and family members were spinners of wool and cotton as an occupation. When the mill did good business then the people of the community benefited, however when the mill business was down it impaired the people financially. Hunt had a mechanical engineering ability and would put that to use to benefit the community when it was called for. One time his expertise in mechanics was applied to a flax spinner machine that led the town flax mill operator and a local community member to get a patent in 1823 on a combination spinning and roping apparatus machine.[3][4]

Again in April 1826 when the mill operator was about to cut his workers' income because the price of flax had gone down, Hunt convinced him that his low profits were because of inefficient mill operations of the machinery and not because of the workers.[5] Hunt suggested that they come up with a better flax spinning machine. He created the new machine and three months later patented it on June 22, 1826.[6] Hunt went to New York City after receiving the patent to get money needed to make the new mechanism. This visiting was the first time he had gone to such a large city. There he sold the patent rights outright instead of getting money to mass-produce it. This mode of operation became Hunt's style of doing business in the future.[2]

Hunt witnessed an accident during this first time in New York City where a horse-drawn carriage ran over a child. He was troubled by the accident and that this event was a common occurrence in the city. Hunt decided, after he got back home, to see if there was a way to prevent such accidents from happening. Carriage drivers had loud horns to make noise to warn nearby pedestrians that they were approaching, however they rarely used them during an emergency. The driver needed to keep both his hands on the reins to keep the horses under control and to prevent run-away instances. Those events motivated Hunt to come up with a metal bell that was operated with a clobber hammer that could be controlled by one of driver's feet without letting go of the horse reins.

Streetcar gong sound

He patented his new innovation on July 30, 1827.[4] He then decided to go back to the city to sell his new concept and moved his family with him there. He sold his house and personal possessions in Lowville and relocated his family to New York City.[7] After much promotion to many prospects Hunt was able to sell his foot operated coach alarm mechanism idea to the stagecoach operators Kipp and Brown.[8] Hunt's innovation was soon adopted by most public horse-drawn vehicles throughout New York City.[9] As was his developed style of doing business, he sold his patent outright and did not get any future royalties from sales of the device after it became mass-produced.[2][3][10]


Hunt was a prolific inventor. From 1827 to 1830, while earning a living in the real estate field, he invented fire engines, police stations, improvements for hard coal-burning stoves, the first home knife sharpener,[11] and a restaurant steam table apparatus.[12] He also invented the precursor of the Winchester repeating rifle[13][14] and the forerunner of the American fountain pen as used in the twentieth century.[15][16][17] and another was Walter Hunt’s 1849 patent model for the first American safety pin.[18] Additionally Hunt invented a flax spinner, a knife sharpener, artificial stone, the first rotary street sweeping machine,[11][19] mail sorting machinery, velocipedes, and ice plows.[20][21][22] He also made improvements to guns, cylindro-conoidal bullets,[23] ice-breaking wooden hull boats, paraffin oil candles, velocipedes, machines for making rivets and nails, street sweeper machines, and self-closing inkwells.[24][25] He also invented the Antipodean Performers suction-cup shoes used by circus performers to ascend up solid side walls and walk upside down across high ceilings.[21][26] He did not realize the significance of many of his inventions when he produced them and sold off most of his patent rights to others for low prices making little for himself in the long run.[27] In the twentieth century many of his patented devices were widely used everyday common products.[3][28]

Hunt's sewing machine patent model
constructed prior to June 27, 1854.

Sewing machine[edit]

He developed the first modern feasible operating sewing machine[21] sometime between the years 1832 and 1834[29] at his Amos Street shop that was up a narrow alley in Abingdon Square[30] at the borough of Manhattan in the city of New York.[3][31] He manufactured and sold a few of these machines at the time.[22] He never initially patented the mechanical device he created that used a lockstitch for sewing.[32] It had a characteristic of an eye-pointed needle and used two threads whereby one thread passed through a twisted loop in the other thread and then both interlocked.[33] The uniqueness of this was that it was the initial time an engineer or technician inventor had not imitated a single stitch done by hand and used two interlocking threads at a seam.[34] He used a technique for sewing which was revolutionary at the time by inventing a curved eye-pointed needle for his machine that performed the interlocking lockstitch.[32][34] The eye opening was near the point of the needle. The needle was operated on a vibrating arm and a loop was formed under the cloth by this thread through which a shuttle, reeling off another thread, was forced back and forth making an interlocked stitch.[35] Hunt completed his working model before he showed it to anyone.[36]

Hunt sold one-half the patent rights in 1834 to businessman and blacksmith George A. Arrowsmith who never manufactured it to sell.[37][38][39] He instead had Hunt's wooden version duplicated in iron by Adoniram, Hunt's brother. Adoniram was a skilled mechanic and duplicated the original wooden version. It performed better because no splinters of wood impeded the passage of the cloth.[40] Arrowsmith had no interest patenting the sewing machine then and had decided to postpone that step for a later time. He gave as reasons for not procuring a patent was that 1) he was busy with other businesses then; 2) the expense of getting the appropriate drawings and paperwork together to register a patent was more than he could afford and; 3) the difficulty of introducing the new sewing machine into public use, saying it would have cost two thousand (equivalent to $54,290 in 2021) or three thousand (equivalent to $81,430 in 2021) dollars to start the sewing machine business.[35] Had he seen the newspaper article titled Sewing by Machinery of December 1835 and January 1836 that was in many nationwide newspapers he may have applied for a patent right away.[41][42]

Hunt did not seek a patent for his sewing machine at the time because he worried it would create unemployment with seamstresses.[43][44] History records show that his wife and daughter, Caroline, advised him against marketing his sewing apparatus.[45][46][47] This ultimately led to a court case in 1854 when the lockstitch sewing machine concept was applied for by Elias Howe in a patent application.[48] Hunt submitted his initial application for his sewing machine on April 2, 1853. Records at the Supreme Court show Hunt's invention was made before Howe's machine and the Patent Office identified Hunt's preexistence but it did not issue a patent to him for this.[49] The reason was because he had not filled out the proper paperwork for a patent before Howe's paperwork application and had abandoned the design experiment of the 1830s.[50] Hunt acquired public acknowledgement for his invention, however Howe's official patent remained lawful because of the technicality of the timing of the paperwork. Isaac Singer arranged to give Hunt $50,000 (equivalent to $1,565,960 in 2021) in installments for his sewing machine design in 1858 in order to clear up the patent confusion about sewing machines, but Hunt died before Singer was able to consummate the agreement.[2][3][45]

1849 Safety pin model representation

Safety pin[edit]

Hunt thought little of the safety pin, his best-known invention. He sold the patent for $400 (equivalent to $13,030 in 2021) to W R Grace and Company, to pay a draftsman he owed $15 to (equivalent to $490 in 2021).[3] J.R. Chapin pressured Hunt to pay off what was due to him for the drafting work he had done on previous inventions that needed patent drawings for application submissions.[51]

He devised the safety pin ("C") by experimenting with a spool of high tension wire for a few hours on a day in 1849.[3][21][52] His invention was an improvement on the current way clothing items were attached together before because of a protective clasp ("D") at the end and a coiled wire design ("B") with a spring tension on the pointed end leg ("A") to keep it in the protective clasp even if the pin device was moved around. The basic design is the same in the twentieth century as when Hunt innovated the device in the nineteenth century and is manufactured inexpensively. W R Grace and Company made millions of dollars profit off the product.[53]

Other inventions[edit]

Hunt's paper shirt-collar invention
drawing, patent number # 14,019.

One of Hunt's popular inventions was a paper shirt collar. This time he sold the patented design and negotiated for royalty payments, but the item only became popular after he died.[3] The unusual item was first put on sale in New York City in 1854 and used then mostly for stage purposes. In time it became fashionable and the general public then started using them. High production of the item came about and at one time there were as many as forty factories making paper collars in the United States. The manufactured output in 1868 became 400,000 that were sold to the general public.[54]

Eight styles of invention for paper collar
Walter Hunt
tombstone 2012

Hunt often used the legal services and patent research work of Charles Grafton Page, a certified patent lawyer who had worked at the Patent Office before, when seeking a potential patent for one of his inventions.[55] His inventions covered a wide variety of fields and subjects. About two dozen of Hunt's inventions are still used in the form in which he created them over one hundred years ago.[56]

Some of Hunt's important inventions are shown below with the patent drawings.

Later life and death[edit]

Hunt created numerous usable everyday inventions in his lifetime, however he never became independently wealthy from them.[34] He died of pneumonia at his place of business in New York City on June 8, 1859.[2] He is interred in Green-Wood Cemetery at Brooklyn, New York.[57][58] His grave is marked by a small red granite shaft about a hundred feet from Howe's massive bust monument.[56][59]


Hunt was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006 for the safety pin invention.[60][61] Many of Hunt's invention ideas are in actual use today and are basically the same device as when he patented them more than a hundred years ago. Some of those others besides the safety pin and sewing machine[62] are a device which regulates the amount of liquid that comes from a bottle with each tilt, a bottle stopper, springy attachment for adjustments to belts and suspenders, and a nail making machine.[59][63][64]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kane 1997, pp. 1, 13.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Walter Hunt". Encyclopedia of World Biography Online (subscription required). Gale, a Cengage Company. 2001. Retrieved March 21, 2022.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Walter Hunt". World of Invention Online (subscription required). Gale, a Cengage Company. 2006. Retrieved March 22, 2022.
  4. ^ a b Hunt 1935, p. 3.
  5. ^ Kane 1997, pp. 1–8.
  6. ^ Kane 1997, p. 9.
  7. ^ Kane 1997, pp. 34–42.
  8. ^ Kane 1997, pp. 43–44.
  9. ^ Kane 1997, p. 45.
  10. ^ Kane 1997, pp. 45–56.
  11. ^ a b Brandon 1977, p. 58.
  12. ^ Kane 1997, pp. 57–68.
  13. ^ Bowman 1958, pp. 54, 55.
  14. ^ Byrn 1900, p. 411.
  15. ^ Kane 1997, p. 302.
  16. ^ Tonson 1848, p. 243.
  17. ^ Wilson 2017, p. 33.
  18. ^ Block, Jean Libman (September 30, 2002). "Joseph Kane, 103; Author Gug for Forgotten Facts and History". The Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. p. 74 – via open access. Kane, who could also report with confidence that the first sheep had been brought to the U.S. in 1609 and the first camels in 1721, kept a few inventions along with his myriad facts about them. One was the first fountain pen invented in America
  19. ^ Thanhauser 2022, p. 34.
  20. ^ Lamphier 2019, p. 284.
  21. ^ a b c d "Patent Laws Spur Inventiveness". The Geauga Record. Chardon, Ohio. April 9, 1955. p. 6.
  22. ^ a b Kaghan, Theodore (March 26, 1939). "Humanity's Hall of Fame". The Cincinnati Enquirer. Cincinnati, Ohio. p. 98 – via open access.
  23. ^ Hellstrom 1953, pp. 13, 14.
  24. ^ Abbot 1944, p. 249.
  25. ^ Keeley 1950, p. 27.
  26. ^ Jimmy Stamp (2013). "The Inventive Mind of Walter Hunt, Yankee Mechanical Genius". Smithsonian arts-culture. Smithsonian. Retrieved March 23, 2022.
  27. ^ "Walter Hunt". Your Dictionary. Your Dictionary. 2021. Retrieved April 18, 2022.
  28. ^ Block, Jean Libman (February 22, 1952). "The Forgotten Inventor". The Sun Times. Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada. p. 4 – via open access.
  29. ^ Byrn 1900, p. 184.
  30. ^ Parton 1872, p. 19.
  31. ^ Kane 1997, pp. 69–76.
  32. ^ a b Cooper 1968, p. 11.
  33. ^ "The History of Sewing Machines !!". The Indiana Progress. Indiana, Pennsylvania. June 19, 1889. p. 13 – via open access.
  34. ^ a b c Fulton 2008, p. 846.
  35. ^ a b Singer Sewing Machine 1897, p. 13.
  36. ^ Kane 1997, p. 72.
  37. ^ "The Sewing Machine, Its History and Development". The Courier and Argus. Dundee, Tayside, Scotland. November 5, 1878. p. 7 – via open access.
  38. ^ "The Rise and Progress of the Sewing Machine Trade". Glasgow Herald. Glasgow, Glasgow, Scotland. April 18, 1868. p. 3 – via open access.
  39. ^ Kane 1997, pp. 76–79.
  40. ^ Kane 1997, pp. 74.
  41. ^ "Sewing by Machinery". National Banner and Nashville Wig. Nashville, Tennessee. January 6, 1836. p. 2 – via open access.
  42. ^ Kane 1997, p. 79.
  43. ^ Klooster 2009, p. 172.
  44. ^ Lewtin 1930, p. 559.
  45. ^ a b "1854 - Walter Hunt's Patent Model of a Sewing Machine". Smithsonian - National Museum of American History. Retrieved March 21, 2022.
  46. ^ "Do Inventions Injuren the Laborer?". The Jackson Standard. Jackson, Ohio. July 11, 1878. p. 1 – via open access.
  47. ^ Kane 1997, p. 76.
  48. ^ O'Dwyer, Davin (April 29, 2011). "Inspiring innovators: Walter Hunt". Irish Times. Ireland. Retrieved October 28, 2011.
  49. ^ "Walter Hunt, Inventor". The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn, New York. April 9, 1889. p. 23 – via open access.
  50. ^ Keiper 1924, p. 60.
  51. ^ Meyer 1962, p. 267.
  52. ^ "The first modern safety pin". The Evening Review. East Liverpool, Ohio. April 17, 1971. p. 7 – via open access.
  53. ^ Ayres 2021, p. 167.
  54. ^ "Brooklyn Man's Name submitted for Hall of Fame". The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn, New York. August 1, 1920. p. 21 – via open access.
  55. ^ Post 1976, p. 159.
  56. ^ a b Kane 1997, p. xi.
  57. ^ "Brooklyn Deadly serious / Guides lifetime love is tombs of departed". The Courier-Journal. Louisville, Kentucky. May 5, 1995. p. 2 – via open access.
  58. ^ "'Here Lies America' is aimed at grave cultists". The Times-News. Twin Falls, Idaho. June 11, 1978. p. 68 – via open access.
  59. ^ a b "Today's Housewife Is Using Hunt's Everyday Inventions". Dayton Daily News. Dayton, Ohio. August 27, 1937. p. 14 – via open access.
  60. ^ "Walter Hunt / Safety Pin". Inductees - Walter Hunt/Safety Pin. National Inventors Hall of Fame. 2022. Retrieved March 22, 2022.
  61. ^ "National Inventors Hall of Fame Class of 2006". The Akron Beacon Journal. Akron, Ohio. May 5, 2006. p. Aoo4 – via open access.
  62. ^ "Brooklyn Man's Name submitted for Hall of Fame". The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn, New York. August 1, 1920. p. 21 – via open access.
  63. ^ Hunt 1935, pp. 5–6.
  64. ^ "Walter Hunt". Smithsonian arts-culture. Smithsonian. 2021. Retrieved March 23, 2022.


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