Matzeliger, Jan

Matzeliger, Jan
b. 1852 Surinam
d. 1889 Lynn, Massachusetts, (?) USA
African-American inventor of the shoe-lasting machine.
He served an apprenticeship as a machinist in his native country, Surinam. As a young man he emigrated to New England in the USA, but he was unable to secure employment in his trade. To survive, he took various odd jobs, including sewing soles on to shoes in a factory at Lynn, Massachusetts, a centre of the shoemaking industry. Much of the shoemaking process had already been mechanized, but lasting remained laborious, painstaking hand work. Matzeliger turned his undoubted inventive powers to mechanizing this operation. It took him four years to achieve a working model of a mechanical last that could be patented. By this time his health and finances had been undermined by the struggle to reach this stage; to raise funds he had to dispose of two-thirds of his rights in his patent to two local investors. Eventually he demonstrated a trial model of his lasting machine and successfully lasted seventy-five pairs of shoes. Not satisfied with that, Matzeliger went on to produce two improved machines, protected by further patents. Finally, the United Shoe Machine Company bought up his patents, but that relief came too late to prevent Matzeliger from dying in poor circumstances. The mechanization of shoe lasting made a significant contribution to the manufacture of shoes, raising production and reducing costs. It also effectively extinguished the final element of skilled hand work required in shoemaking, earning him considerable unpopularity among the workers who were about to be displaced, and resulting in the machine being derogatorily nicknamed "Niggerhead".
Further Reading
P.P.James, 1989, The Real McCoy: African-American Invention and Innovation 1619– 1930, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, pp. 70–2.

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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