Jan Matzeliger was born on September 15, 1852, in Surinam, Dutch Guiana, a South American country. His father was a Dutch engineer in Surinam completing Dutch government duties during the time of Jan’s birth. As a child, Jan showed the willingness and the ability to repair broken equipment while visiting his father’s job. At the age of nineteen Jan left home to travel the world. He would work aboard an Indian merchant ship for two years helping to satisfy his urge to see the world. After returning from the Indian ship he moved to Pennsylvania. Jan spoke very little English when we moved to Pennsylvania, but with his mechanical skills, he would remain employed. After finding work with a cobbler, Jan gained an interest in shoemaking. His new interest would take him to Lynn, Pennsylvania the capital of shoemaking at the time. He would earn an apprenticeship in a shoe factory as a sewing machine operator.
Special shoe sewers known as “lasters,” were held in high regard within the shoe factory. Their job was to sew the upper part of the shoe to the sole of the shoe. Because their job was so important they charged a high price to work, thus driving the price of shoes up. Only 50 pairs of shoes were able to be made in a work day which also contributed to the high prices of the shoes. Jan took it upon himself to study the English language in his free time, this allowed him to read English and study the subjects of physics and mechanical science. Jan taking the time to educate himself would help improve his life more than he could imagine. He believed that he could create a machine that would sew the upper portion of a shoe to the sole of the shoe; a dream he would realize later in life.
Jan would create several inventions that were stolen by other so-called “inventors” who profited from his creations. Jan was quietly focused on creating his “Shoe Laster” machine, so his misfortunes were not a burden to him. After carefully studying the hand motions of the shoe lasters Jan slowly learned how to sew the sole of the shoe to the upper portion of the shoe. His goal of creating a shoe laster machine was becoming clear to him. He would slowly build the machine over time despite having no funds and a lack of resources. He relied on any materials he could find to create his machine.
The hand lasters working for the shoe factory learned of Jan’s plan to create his machine and began to bash and discouraged his work. They were in fear of losing their jobs. As more and more people learned about the shoe laster machine, Jan received various offers to buy the machine. He rejected the offers which helped him learn the value of his creation. Because of a lack of resources, Jan sold 66% of the interest in the machines. This move allowed him to complete two other models of the machine and apply for a patent.
The patent office could not believe someone was creating such a machine, so they sent an employee to review Jan’s “Laster Machine.” In 1883, Jan Matzeliger received a patent for his “Laster Machine” and then improved it to be able to produce 700 pairs of shoes in a workday. Jan died in 1889 at the age of 37 due to tuberculosis. Before his death, he revolutionized the shoe industry by improving shoe production and lowering prices. Because the shoe was now affordable for the average American the shoe industry was able to grow into the Behemoth it is today. Mr. Matzeliger allowed his imagination to improve his life and change the lives of people around the world. Jan Matzeliger, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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