Name at birth: Elias Howe, Jr.
Elias Howe was an American inventor who won the first patents for a sewing machine in 1846. A tinkerer since his early youth, Howe worked his father's sawmill until he was about 16, when he found work as at a cotton mill in Lowell, Massachusetts. Two years later, in 1837, he moved to Cambridge, where he started to make a living fixing machines. In his off hours -- and when he wasn't sick in bed -- Howe worked on improving the design of what then passed for sewing machines. By 1845 he had built two working machines, one for the patent office and one for exhibitions. Awarded a patent in 1846, Howe sought investors to begin manufacturing the machines, but had no luck. He and his brother, Amasa, approached English investors, and ended up selling part of his patents for a small sum and staying in England to work. After struggling financially, Howe returned to the U.S. in 1847 to discover sewing machines being manufactured and his patents being infringed. After nearly five years, Howe triumphed in court in 1854 and the royalties he made from others -- most notably Isaac Merritt Singer -- made him a wealthy man at last. Howe received royalties until 1867, when his patents expired, and he died that same year, at the age of 48.
During the Civil War, Howe used his wealth to outfit a regiment from Connecticut, and then enlisted as a private (he served as a postmaster’s assistant and never saw combat).