One Dream That Changed Billions of Lives

For many Americans, the 1930s were like a nightmare. Over 25 percent of the population found themselves without work. Because of that, they were suffering.

Memories and images of the Great Depression are still fresh. While the generation that personally experienced it grows fewer every day, the phrase still conjures images of unemployment lines. People still think of dirty, starving children with haggard, worried mothers; crowded soup kitchens, sharecropper; shantytowns. Families have stories about how their relatives suffered during those days leading up to W.W. II.

Everyone suffered in one way or another. So many people wishing and hoping that their luck would change, that they’d get some — any — break!

The Great Depression wasn’t the first period of precipitous economic decline in the United States. Almost a century before the Great Depression, world commodity prices collapsed in the Panic of 1837. Both times, unemployment reached a quarter of the population in some areas. Consumer prices fell seven years in a row in a phenomenon known as deflation. Misery spread to every corner of the United States. Why buy today when the price could go down tomorrow? If nobody is buying, nobody gets paid. And so the suffering spreads.

Millions of men and women were thrown out of work. Many starved. One of these millions of people was a young man named Elias. After the textile factory in Lowell, Massachusetts that he worked at went out of business, Elias and his cousin Nathaniel moved 30 miles away to Cambridge. They were lucky to find work as mechanics on carding machinery. Carding machines were important in the creation of textiles. The machines clean, sort and spin threads together when cotton is turned into cloth.

The young men did what they had to do to survive, working hard to secure a better tomorrow. There would be better days ahead for both of them. Nathaniel would become governor of Massachusetts in 1858, then later a general in the Union Army during the Civil War and a congressman. Elias would become a renowned inventor. That success, however, was years ahead in the future. In the 1830s, both men did what they needed to do in order to survive.

Elias had an idea for a machine to would make strong stitches in fabric. With such a machine clothing, drapes, wind sails, and other textile products could be sewn faster and more easily. If he could invent and market such a machine, it would make him a fortune. If he had a fortune, he’d never have to worry about not having a job and going hungry ever again.

He was confident such a machine was possible. It had to be. With his experience in textile factories and, now, his apprenticeship in a precision machine shop, he knew what had to run right in order to have a well-functioning machine. However, a few details still stymied him.

The first designs used the needle and thread in a conventional way. The eye of the needle was located at the top and the thread ran through.

Those designs failed. All of them. Because of that, one night Elias went to bed perplexed and despondent.

When he went to sleep, Elias dreamt he was being forced to build his invention for a savage king in a strange country.

“You have 24 hours to finish this machine and make it sew,” the king said. “Or else.”

In the dream, Elias was still stumped. He couldn’t get the machine to make a single stitch.

The deadline passed. Elias was taken out to be executed. As he was being led to his death, he noticed the warriors were armed with a spear pierced up near the top of the tip.

That was it! He woke with a start. It was 4 a.m. He ran to his workshop. By 9 a.m. he invented the sewing machine. While there had been other sewing machines invented before, Elias Howe’s was the first to make a lockstitch. This kind of stitch was much stronger than others. It revolutionized clothing production.

The gist of Elias Howe’s story about how he invented the sewing machine isn’t rare. Many scientific breakthroughs, songs, stories, and other creative breakthroughs have come to people in dreams.

While every one of your dreams may not have the world-changing impact of this dream, if you’re forgetting most of them upon waking every night, you’re missing something. Maybe it’s not an invention, a hit song, or a new scientific theory. Maybe it’s only how you’re feeling about a certain topic in your life. That’s a problem because that’s an opportunity for self-knowledge.