Friday, September 23, 2011

The Inventor You Never Knew

If I said the name "Walter Hunt" I’m betting most people would say, “Who?”

He’s the inventor no one knows, yet the inventor of many things that are still used today—or that evolved into things we use today. Then why don’t we know him?

Because he worked behind the scenes and because he made mistakes--mistakes we can learn from today…

He was born in 1796 in New York state. As a young man he lived in the textile mill town of Lowville, New York. His family worked in the mills. The entire town depended on the mills. When the mill owner wanted to lay people off because he was losing money, Hunt convinced him it wasn’t because of the workers, but because the machines were inefficient. To fix the problem, Hunt invented a better flax spinner and the workers’ jobs were saved. Bravo.  Way to go.

But then Hunt made the first of a series of mistakes.  And so our lessons begin. . .

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE: Good things come to those who wait. Throughout his life, Walter Hunt went for the quick gain rather than being patient and looking at the bigger picture.  After inventing his flax spinner he went to New York City and sold the patent. He got quick money up front. But by doing so he ended his chance to reap any profits from the machine over time.

LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES: As an inventor, Hunt had to try and fail, try and fail many times before he finally succeeded. That succession of steps was ingrained into his work ethic. But when it came to business, Hunt tossed aside this method. He failed at not profiting from the spinner, so you would have thought he would learn from his mistake of selling the rights. Nope.

Just a year after the spinner was invented, he witnessed the death of a little girl under the wheels of a carriage. It affected him greatly (as it certainly would.) Hunt recognized the problem at hand: coachmen had hand horns to beep, but in an emergency, they had to keep both hands on the reins. So Hunt invented a foot-activated gong. Problem identified, problem solved.

But once again he sold the patent before it was manufactured.

BIG GAINS INVOLVE BIG RISKS: This was a reoccurring lesson not learned in Hunt’s life. The need to pay the bills caused him to sell now rather than wait for the possibility of a larger gain in the future. Admittedly, waiting was a risk, but history shows that in most cases, the risk paid off—for someone else.

So it went with a knife sharpener, a stove, a globe caster, fountain pens, ink stands, bottle stoppers, ice-cutters for boats, paper collars, innovations in guns, and the first sewing machine. Invent it, sell it, move on. In Hunt’s defense, he was married and had four children to support.  He needed money.  Now.

He tried his hand at real estate, but his mind was always working, seeing a problem and inventing an answer.

For instance, while trying to figure out how to pay a $15 debt, he was fiddling with a piece of wire—and invented the safety pin. He sold the rights. The rest is history.

Sewing machine drawings

PAPERWORK PAYS & TIMING IS EVERYTHING: Hunt invented the first sewing machine in 1833. He didn’t patent it, but sold the idea to George Arrowsmith. But then there was a recession, a cholera epidemic, and labor issues—seamstresses thought the new machine would put them out of work, so Arrowsmith also let the idea slide.

A decade later, when the world had calmed down, many inventors started expanding on Hunt’s idea.  In 1846, John Greenough received the first patent for a sewing machine.

Then more inventors jumped into the game, and in 1853, Elias Howe and I.M. Singer—two men who took Hunt's idea and expanded on it—were in court, battling for the rights to this very lucrative product. Howe claimed he invented the first workable sewing machine. Singer’s defense involved showing Hunt’s original drawings, dated 1834, which proved Howe wasn't the first, Hunt was (therefore Singer shouldn't have to pay Howe anything.)  In the end the courts acknowledged Hunt as the first inventor, but ruled that because Hunt never filled out the proper paperwork for the patent, Howe could have it. I’m sure Hunt kicked himself on that one.  The lack of paperwork, added to inventing the right idea at the wrong time, equaled nothing. Actually, Issac Singer agreed to pay Hunt $50,000 to end the patent controversy, but Hunt died before receiving the first payment.  Once again, bad timing.

KNOW YOUR STRENGTHS: Even as I reveal my frustration with Hunt’s choice to sell the rights to his inventions and not take the time and energy to manufacture them, I wonder if he was wiser than I give him credit for. Perhaps he knew his strengths—and weaknesses. He clearly was not a businessman. He was good with his hands, he had a mechanical mind, but to develop a factory to manufacture his products, to think about owning a building, hiring workers, marketing the product to the public… Did the breadth of that task overwhelm him? I can imagine him most content in his workspace, tinkering with odd parts, working alone but for the churnings of his mind.

Hmm. Perhaps I need to cut the man some slack. For as a writer I often feel overwhelmed with the new world of publishing and e-publishing and networking and websites and marketing—and just want to be left alone in my workspace, tinkering with odd characters , working alone but for the churnings of my mind.

For even though Hunt didn’t reap great monetary reward (I can feel your pain, Walter) he was highly respected. On June 8, 1859, he died of pneumonia in his workshop—working until the end. I can relate to that, for on more than one occasion, I’ve found myself at my computer through sickness and surgeries and exhaustion. I’d love for my family to find “THE END” typed on the computer when I die.  Dying with your boots on isn't a bad way to go.

RESPECT AND SATISFACTION ARE WORTH MORE THAN MONEY:  All this begs the question of "What is success?"  Is it measured by money?  Fame?  Walter Hunt never earned a lot of money, but he provided for his family.  He wasn't famous, but he enjoyed his work.  After his death, the New York Tribune wrote this about him: "For more than forty years, he has been known (for his) experiments in the arts. Whether in mechanical movements, chemistry, electricity or metallic compositions, he was always at home: and, probably in all, he has tried more experiments than any other inventor."

Which leads to a very important life lesson:   IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED, TRY, TRY AGAIN.  Life is all about trying.  And failing.  And trying again. Hunt did that better than most.

Walter Hunt, inventor extraordinaire, I owe you an apology.  Because hindsight is 20/20 I can look at your life and see your blunders. Yet I cringe when I think of someone in the future dissecting my life, my mistakes, and my missed opportunities. You used your gifts, which is more than a lot of people do: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." Luke 12:48

So here it is.  My apology and my kudos.  You did good, Walter. I understand you better now--and I appreciate you./Nancy

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Quilts and Historical Fiction

I readily admit that “it’s the history” that draws me to historical fiction. And it’s a good thing that I love history, because writing historical fiction means that before I dress, move, or feed anyone … I have to do research. I’m never happier than when I’m in my studio surrounded by piles of “dry” (to others) history books, historical documents, sepia-toned photographs, and enlargements of historical settings (see photo at right) for my current

work-in-progress I literally end up in a “nest” surrounded by ephemera and, on occasion, patchwork.

Patchwork?! Yep. I'm an avid textile geek. I adore old fabric and have several running feet of antique quilt

tops and quilts stored in a walk-in-closet just off my office. In fact, one set of quilt blocks in particular played a role in my beginning the story that became my first novel back in 1995. I’d stood in the hot sun for hours waiting for an auctioneer to sell a box of rags … because among the “rags” were some diamond-shaped quilt blocks that, had they ever been finished, would have made the center of what quilt lovers call a Blazing Star or a Bethlehem Star quilt.
It was only natural for me to imagine my heroine stitching those blocks together … and only natural for me to wonder why she never finished them. Those bits of cloth led me to take a class in dating quilts … and another class … and, eventually, a class in appraising quilts … and then another … and so it goes. I continue to have a passionate fascination with antique fabric and American quilts, and as I’ve collected quilts and tops and blocks, I’ve always wondered about the women who made them. Why, for example, did his woman cut up what appears to be a devotional book to make these hexagons? It’s a technique known as English paper piecing, but I find
myself wondering about the papers used and wondering … was she upset with God when she cut up that devotional book or Sunday School manual?
And I love "meeting" frugal women who pieced bits together to get a larger bit for patchwork. If you look carefully, you can see where the seam is on the triangle in
the center.

Over the years, as I’ve read women’s diaries and reminiscences, I’ve collected references to quilts and “comforts,” and I love including references to what historians call ‘material culture’ in my stories. In Sixteen Brides I had fun helping a woman who ran a store get rid of some awful orange fabric by marketing it as fabric that would make quilts “shimmer.” As it turns out, one woman takes on the challenge and makes a beautiful dark blue and orange quilt. I keep thinking I should try it. But I’m a quilt lover, not really a quilt-maker.

Since my books are usually set in the 19th Century on the Great Plains, I can reference quilts as bedding, room dividers, front doors and more … and I can use quilting bees as natural settings for conversation and competition among women. A courthouse steps quilt plays an important role in next year’s release with Barbour titled The Key on the Quilt.

I sometimes give a lecture called “Dress Your Beds Fashionably” that shares general guidelines for what a bed would “wear,” in a given time period, but my knowledge of quilt history helps me dress my ladies, too. The book Dating Fabrics, A color guide 1800-1960 by Eileen Jahnke Trestain includes color plates of popular fabric divided by era: Pre-1830, 1830-1860, 1860-1880, 1880-1910, and so on up through 1960. It’s a wonderful resource that helps me “see color” in my sepia-toned photograph collection.

The more I learn about antique quilts and textiles, the more I want to know. I’m fortunate to live near the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, where exhibitions never cease to inspire more questions and lead me on new quests to get to know the women behind the quilts. I never know when a new idea will spring up as I ponder patchwork.

If you’d like a copy of the hand-out I provide when I give my “Dress Your Beds Fashionably” lecture, I’d be happy to e-mail a copy. Just send your request to, and indicate “Dress Your Beds” in the subject line.

"Life is just a patchwork quilt of births and deaths and things ... and sometimes, when you're looking for a lovely piece of red, you only find a knot of faded strings ..." May your weekend bring all kinds of lovely reds!........................Stephanie

P.S. It is nearly 1 a.m. and blogger has won for today ... I apologize for the odd font sizes and margins.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Tudor England and Sandra Byrd, author of To Die For

I've been away from the blog for a few weeks, scrambling to finish up a history course for my masters, begin a new course (they overlapped...YIKES) AND my next year's novel, attending a women's conference, and welcoming a new grand-child. This week I introduce you to my writing friend Sandra Byrd and her latest ..... while I work on a blog about KEYS .... and another about SHOES .... back soon! Steph


I have been drawn to Anne Boleyn since I was a girl, curled up in a beanbag chair, dog-earring books about her as I read and re-read them. My research journey took me to

Meg Wyatt, narrator of my novel, whom I came to love and admire. {I will quickly note that in my book I have switched the names of the Wyatt daughters so that the eldest is named Anne/Alice and the younger Margaret/Meg so that the story could be told without two "Annes" to confuse the reader.} My story idea was sparked by one solitary clue, an offhand comment in a link that said that Anne Wyatt attended Anne Boleyn till her death, and that, at the end, Anne Boley

n had given her friend her prayer book, a very personal gift indeed, and just before her execution whispered something in her friend's ear.

I'm a lifelong lover of historical novels, especially all things English. On road trips, I was the nerdy girl in the backseat of the car reading Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy streetlight by streetlight well into the night. I even named my daughter Elizabeth! Therefore, it's a dream come true to pen my own novels set in the Tudor court. Those reformation years were critical to refinement and revival in Christianity. Yet I found that while Anne's faith, and the faith of her friends, was well covered in nonfiction, fiction only infrequently highlighted her convicti

ons, often though not always portraying her as either vixen or victim. I wanted to add some new shading and nuance to the genre and telling it from Meg Wyatt's point of view allowed me to do that. Historian Eric Ives, Anne's principle biographer, says, "The absolute conviction which drove Anne was the importance of the Bible. For that reason, if her brand of reform needs to be given a label, that label must be 'evangelical.'"

My research led me to London, which was fantastic, and many fascinating details. I loved, for example, the Eavesdroppers, little faces carved into the high eaves of the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace.

(Eavesdropper photo copyright Helen Newell, http://tinyurNewall,

They looked soft and sweet. But they were there to remind courtiers that someone was always listening, there was always a secondary audience to anything said at court, and that behind a pleasant face could be a heart of malice. I think it's interesting, too, that being a servant or highborn attendant was a position of honor. Your status wasn't determined by the job or tasks assigned to you, but by the rank of the person you served. That's good for us to remember, too, as Christians.


Learn more about Sandra's books here: or purchase her new book about Anne Boleyn, told from the point of view of Meg Wyatt, here: To Die For