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JAN MATZELIGER INVENTOR 1883 RIDICULED AND DISSUADED

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Sometimes the greatest inventions are those which simplify necessary tasks. Such is the case with Jan Matzeliger - the man who made it possible for ordinary citizens to purchase shoes.

Jan Matzeliger was born in Dutch Guiana (now known as Surinam) in South America. His father was a Dutch engineer and his mother was born in Dutch Guiana and was of African ancestry. His father had been sent to Surinam by the Dutch government to oversee the work going on in the South American country


At an early age, Jan showed a remarkable ability to repair complex machinery and often did so when accompanying his father to a factory. When he turned 19, he decided to venture away from home to explore other parts of the world.


For two years he worked aboard an East Indian merchant ship and was able to visit several countries. In 1873, Jan decided to stay in the United States for a while, landing in Pennsylvania. Although he spoke very little English, he was befriended by some Black residents who were active in a local church and took pity on him.

Because he was good with his hands and mechanically inclined, he was able to get small jobs in order to earn a living.

At some point he began working for a cobbler and became interested in the making of shoes. At that time more than half of the shoes produced in the United States came from the small town of Lynn, Massachusetts.

Still unable to speak more than rudimentary English, Matzeliger had a difficult time finding work in Lynn. After considerable time, he was able to begin working as a show apprentice in a shoe factory. He operated a McKay sole-sewing machine which was used to attached different parts of a shoe together.

Unfortunately, no machines existed that could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole. As such, attaching the upper part of a shoe to the sole had to be done by hand. The people who were able to sew the parts of the shoe together were called "hand lasters" and expert ones were able to produce about 50 pairs of shoes in a 10 hour work day.

They were held in high esteem and were able to charge a high price for their services, especially after they banded together and formed a union called the Company of Shoemakers.

Because the hand lasters were able to charge so much money, a pair of shoes was very expensive to purchase. Hand lasters were confident that they would continue to be able to demand high sums of money for their services saying "... no matter if the sewing machine is a wonderful machine.

No man can build a machine that will last shoes and take away the job of the laster, unless he can make a machine that has fingers like a laster - and that is impossible." Jan Matzeliger decided they were wrong.



After working all day Matzeliger took classes at night to learn English. Soon, he was able to read well enough to study books on physics and mechanical science. This enabled him to a number of inventions.

Lacking sufficient money, he was unable to patent these inventions and watched helplessly as other people claimed to have created the devises and received the financial rewards they brought.

Matzeliger did not despair over these situations because he was already thinking of a more important invention - the shoe laster.


Watching hand lasters all day, Matzeliger began understanding how they were able to join the upper parts of a shoe to the sole.

At night he sat devising methods for imitating the mannerisms of the hand lasters and sketched out rough drawings of a machine that might work in the same manner.

Soon, Matzeliger began putting together a crude working model of his invention. Lacking the proper materials, he used whatever scraps he could find, including cigar boxes, discarded pieces of wood, scrap wire, nails and paper.

After six months, he felt he was on the right track but knew he needed better materials in order to take the next steps.


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