June 8

Issuing from the United States Patent Office on this day in 1869 was Letters Patent No. 91,175, entitled Improvement in Machinery for Sewing Books, in which the inventor stated: “Be it known that I, David McConnell Smyth, of Orange, in the County of Essex, and State of New Jersey, have invented certain new and useful improvements in Machinery for Sewing Books and Pamphlets; and I do hereby declare that the following is a full, clear, and exact description thereof, reference being made to the accompanying drawings, making part of this specification, in which . . . .”

A veteran of Gettysburg, David Smyth was that type of 19th century American who can only be described as a compulsive inventor. He was brought as a boy from the County Down across the sea to the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania by his blacksmith father who settled in the Susquehanna County town of Harford. Here he served an apprenticeship at the blacksmith trade. At the age of fourteen he turned out his first invention, the gimlet screw-point. Finding it necessary to finance the patent for this device, he purchased a supply of colored lithographs, which he sold from door-to-door throughout the surrounding countryside.

Smyth then attended Franklin Academy for a year. Still unable to raise the money for a patent, he started out for New York City hoping to develop his device further. He walked the entire distance, supporting himself by odd jobs on the way. For almost two years he was in financial difficulties, but his skill as a blacksmith eventually secured him a position with a carriage and street-car builder. At this time he received a thousand dollars for his gimlet-screw. He found himself classed as an up-and-coming young man by such inventors as Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine, and Samuel F. B. Morse, perfector of the telegraph.

Smyth’s next invention was a platform scale, which brought him over two thousand dollars for half-interest. In the tradition of the creative mechanic, he always had great problems in managing his money. Consequently he was frequently short of cash, and from time to time had to return to his work in order to recoup his finances. No doubt his friendship with Howe started him thinking about devices for sewing, as he next constructed a machine to sew on the sides of shoes, which was not successful. He then built a machine to sew spangles in hoop skirts, selling it for a pittance to an entrepreneur who later cleared over a quarter of a million dollars a year with it.

After military service during the Civil War, he produced an improved method of making toothpicks, an adjustable carpenter’s miter-box, and a machine for making paper collars. Finally a machine for sewing the fancy stitching in shoes brought him very comfortable royalties. But again he found himself in financial difficulty, so he determined to produce a device which would maintain him securely into his old age. This turned out to be a book-sewing machine, which with subsequent improvements was his most successful invention. He formed the Smyth Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut, and at the age of forty-seven had finally achieved his goal.

The sewing-machine revolutionized the manufacture of books at a period when power presses and stereotyping had far outdistanced the bindery in production speeds. With the Smyth machine a good operator could sew up to seventy books per minute. Such a rapid output found immediate favor with book manufacturers all over the world. One practice which the Smyth device relegated to the scrap heap, to the cheers of most of the bibliophiles, was the sewing of books by stabbing holes in the inside margin, which made it impossible to open a book flat.

It also eliminated the “long rows of girls” described by a little volume on publishing printed by Harper & Brothers in 1855: “The sewing of books is a great work. The ranges of tables devoted to it are so extensive as to furnish accommodations for one hundred girls. .. . Every visitor who sees these girls at their work is struck with the extreme rapidity and dexterity of their movements, and with the healthy and happy, and highly attractive appearance which they themselves and the scene of their labors exhibit.”

No doubt the girls were even happier and more attractive when Mr. Smyth relieved them of their healthy labors.

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