At the early age of 10, Jan Ernst Matzeliger had already started his trade with machines, becoming an apprentice machinist. After nine years on the job, he turned out a master at just 19.
Years after that, he invented a shoe making machine worth billions of dollars, a move considered impossible at the time.
Born in 1852 in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (now called Suriname) in South America to a Dutch father who was a representative of the Dutch government and a black mother who was a resident of Suriname, Jan took an early interest in manufacturing.
Due to his strong desire for mechanical aptitude, his father took him on several visits to factories and soon, he became an apprentice machinist in one of these factories. Becoming a master at the job at age 19, he set out into the world in search of a job.
On his sojourns, Jan spent two years on a merchant ship before docking in the U.S. in 1873 where he experienced the industrial intensity of Philadelphia. He assumed he could easily find work to do so he pitched camp in the town.
However, the job hunt did not come easily for him largely because he knew very little English. Noticing this challenge, a local church of African-Americans took pity on him, helping him find his feet and get around.
With their help, Jan was able to find some odd jobs and finally, landed work with a cobbler, learning about shoes. On the cobbler’s advice, he journeyed from Philly to Lynn, Massachusetts in 1877 – a town which produced over half of all the shoes made in the U.S.
His English wasn’t still the best and with little or no friends to help him around, he kept searching until he was eventually taken on as an apprentice in a shoe factory. He was able to learn how to operate a McKay sole-sewing machine which partly automated the show-making process.
Soon, Jan observed a very important process in the business that needed great attention: the crucial step called a “last” could only be performed by hand. This required joining the upper part of the shoe to the sole, around a mold of a human foot. The expert workmen who performed this task, called “hand lasters,” held enormous power over the entire process, and, therefore, over the industry, their co-workers, and prices for finished shoes.
It intrigued him to learn further that the people believed that no machine could duplicate the skill of the “hand lasters”, whose work lasted a standard 10-hours, producing only 50 pair of shoes. In the words of the Company of Shoemakers, “No man can build a machine that will last shoes and take away the job of the laster…”
Jan Matzeliger thought otherwise. He believed there was something that could be done about the process.
Determined more than ever, he decided to combine his long hours of work and studying English at night with extra readings into physics and mechanical science. Fortunately for him, he got accepted by the North Congregational Church and joined an affiliated young adult group, teaching Sunday School there.
With time, he began work on a primitive model for a lasting machine after observing the “hand lasters”. He also studied their techniques and developed mechanical means for mimicking their actions.
Spending every penny he could save on materials and parts, and still relying on cigar boxes, scraps of wood, and discarded nails and wire, he continued to make progress. After a long period of basic development, he felt that he had a workable solution but required additional capital for better materials and parts, writes Black History Now.
All this while, Jan had been working in obscure secret but news of his invention began to spread. The”hand lasters”, who still believed no such machine could be made to take over their work, mocked him. He was nonetheless unfazed and continued to work.
He also received exploitative offers of anywhere from $50 to $1,500 for the rights to his design. Jan eventually found two investors who contributed adequate funding in return for two-thirds ownership, leaving the inventor with one-third. He was soon able to complete a second and third working prototype and to file for a patent in 1882.
A 15-page document was developed but was so complex that the patent examiners couldn’t understand it or believe that a machine could perform these tasks. A representative was then sent to Lynn to observe the prototype for himself.
Convinced by his invention, in March 1883, the U.S. Patent Office granted Patent Number 274,207 to Jan for a “Lasting Machine.” Within two years, he had perfected the basic design to the point where a Matzeliger Lasting Machine could make 700 pairs of shoes a day – that is 14 times the number previously made by hand.
Undoubtedly, the demand for the machine grew quickly and in 1889, a company, The Consolidated Lasting Machine Company, was established in which Jan retained substantial ownership.
The United Shoe Machine Company subsequently purchased the patent, leading to a 50 percent reduction in the price of shoes, a doubling of wages for shoe factory workers, and improved working conditions. The company would ultimately be worth $1 billion.
The creation of the Matzeliger Lasting Machine enabled the creation of the modern shoe industry and billions of dollars of economic value, as well as, affordable shoes for ordinary people everywhere.
Today, all shoe manufacturing companies use the mechanical principles he developed which have opened up the shoe business to levels of growth that could never have been anticipated in the 1800s.
Although his invention and the company was making a lot of money, he, unfortunately, did not live long to enjoy any of them largely due to poor eating habits and deteriorating health. At the age of 37 and with no wife or heirs, Jan left his wealth and proceeds to the church that accepted and befriended him.