In celebration of Black History Month, we invite you to learn about how 2006 National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Jan Ernst Matzeliger revolutionized the shoe industry by inventing the automatic shoe-lasting machine, a device that mechanically produced 3D wooden molds essential to shoe construction.
An Early Interest in Shoe Manufacturing
In what is now Paramaribo, a port city located on the northern coast of Suriname, Matzeliger was born on Sept. 15, 1852. He showed a great deal of promise at an early age working with machines, and at just 10 years old, he began working in the machine shops supervised by his father.
At the age of 19, he began working as a sailor on a merchant ship. Six years later, he settled down in Lynn, Massachusetts, and became an apprentice in a shoe factory.
At the time, shoes were typically made by hand, and to ensure a proper fit, custom molds of customers’ feet had to be constructed using lasts made of wood or stone. This was a time-consuming process, and both shaping and attaching the outside of the shoe to the sole was tedious and had to be completed entirely by hand.
Matzeliger realized there was an opportunity to drastically speed up the process of manufacturing shoes by developing a specialized machine that could last shoes. Using reference books and a secondhand set of drafting instruments, he diligently worked at night after long days at the factory.
Prototyping and Perseverance
Matzeliger built his first model out of wooden cigar boxes, elastic and wire. Due to the complex movements required to stretch shoe leather around a last, previous attempts at creating an automatic shoe-lasting machine had failed. However, Matzeliger persevered and after two years, he completed his prototype. On March 20, 1883, he received a patent. His invention was so ahead of its time that the patent examiners had to see the machine in operation to understand how it worked.
Over time, Matzeliger continued to make improvements to his invention until it could produce 700 pairs of shoes per day — an incredible increase from the 50 pairs that an experienced laster could make by hand. Thanks to his invention, shoe prices dropped by nearly half, making shoes affordable to many more people than ever before.
Unfortunately, Matzeliger passed away before he could see the true impact of his invention, one month before his 37th birthday from tuberculosis. Thanks in large part to his invention, Lynn, Massachusetts came to be known as “The Shoe Capital of the World.”
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