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Friday, December 10, 2010


Solomon Adler, Nov. 1958: silver gelatin
photoprint, photographer unidentified
 Solomon "Sol" Adler (1901-1990) is probably best known for his sewing machine inventions, but when you look into his portfolio of work you also see ideas and patents for a fountain pen, a window treatment, a receptacle tap, a telescoping umbrella, an ashtray, a retractable table, and jewelry designs. Adler wrote fiction as well (mostly short stories) that reflected his experiences during the early 1900s in New York City. He filled pages with themes on social protest, radicalism, mobs, unions, poverty, and sweatshop operators. In 1958 Adler wrote about theories of nuclear physics, noting, "Indeed a very bold attempt and definitely a long way from sewing machines." Adler’s flow of ideas was constant and he sought to express them constantly.

Adler grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City, the son of Isaac Adler, a tailor. He apprenticed in machine shops and attended the City College of New York, learning and honing the skills needed to become an expert machinist, toolmaker and draftsman.

Pacesetter user's guide, 1956
Adler’s work on sewing machines began in the late 1930s with tinkering with his sister-in-law Bess’s treadle-operated Singer machine. Bess wanted a lightweight, motorized sewing machine that had enough space between the frame and the needle for large projects such as quilts. Using his own basement machine shop, Adler began building simple frameworks for sewing machines to better understand the relationships between the parts and their functions.

Adler’s first sewing machine (which he dubbed the "parent machine") earned U.S. Patent 2,561,643, issued in 1951. The machine was a full-size home machine, with a concealed motor and power cord, that could also expand into a commercial-size machine. Six subsequent patents for subassemblies were derived from the "parent machine" over the next several years.

Analyzing the evolving U.S. domestic sewing machine market gave Adler ideas for further inventions, refining the machines and adding new features. Unfortunately, success was elusive; his machine with zigzag- and straight-stitch capability was rejected by several U.S. and European sewing machine manufacturers. But in 1954, Adler met Max Hugel, president of the Asiatic Commerce Corporation of New York, later known as Brother International Corporation (BIC), a subsidiary of the Nippon Company. Nippon wanted to solve certain design and operational problems it was having in developing a zigzag sewing machine for sale in the United States. Adler joined BIC, moved to Japan, and succeeded in helping correct the design issues.

New Japan Sewing Machine News,
Christmas issue, 1959
While working as an engineer for the Brother International Corporation in Japan in the early 1950s, Adler developed the Pacesetter sewing machine. This portable machine was designed to meet the rapidly growing popularity of multiple decorative and embroidery patterns. A selector dial, which Adler called the “Wishing Dial,” controlled sixteen internal cams, multiple cam selectors and followers to automatically sew thirty different basic decorative stitch patterns. Since the Pacesetter could sew both zigzag and straight stitches, varying the width and length of the basic patterns made it possible to create thousands of decorative variations. Adler stayed with BIC until 1959, working on a variety of sewing machines including an automatic zigzag machine and the versatile "Pacesetter," which was unveiled in the United States to great acclaim at the Sewing Machine Show in New York City on July 18, 1955 (a version of the Pacesetter is still sold by Brother). Additionally, he worked on a line of industrial and domestic sewing machines, home washing machines, home knitting machines, and other small appliances. Adler earned several Japanese patents for his work.

Pacesetter sewing machine advertisement
from publicity packet, 1950s
Adler wrote in a letter to his son Michael. dated October 23, 1958, “This is the way I tick. Over the years I store up a hodge-podge of heterogeneous information which one day jells into an idea. When this comes about I am overtaken by a spell of restlessness until the idea is expressed or finalized, one way or another.”

The Adler papers in the Archives Center, which include correspondence, notes, photographs, drawings, sketches, litigation records, and printed materials, provide insight into an independent inventor’s state of mind during the process of invention as well as an archival portrait of his contributions to 20th-century American life and commerce.

--Alison Oswald, Archivist, National Museum of American History Archives Center

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