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Is it possible that they could somehow have figured out how to build one with the technology they had?

If so, what other types of similar machines could they also build?

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closed as off-topic by Aify, L.Dutch, Azuaron, Green, Frostfyre Feb 26 '18 at 21:27

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question does not appear to be about worldbuilding, within the scope defined in the help center." – Aify, L.Dutch, Azuaron
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you define what you mean by "technology"? Because really the answer is obviously not because they didn't do it (apparently, I didn't check, I assume you did enough research), but the term technology is often used rather freely. I'm sorry if this seems pedantic, but I think depending on what you mean by that, the answer could switch to "yes". For example: Could a Roman have pressed the on button on a vacuum cleaner? "yes". Did Romans have the infrastructure to mass-produce vacuum cleaners? "no" $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Feb 26 '18 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ I meant if the inventor of the first sewing machine had access to what the romans had, could he still build it or would he need something totally different? $\endgroup$ – Alexandre S. Feb 26 '18 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ If he invented it, why wouldn't he be able to build it? It's best to edit your initial question and not just add more information via comments. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Feb 26 '18 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ Hi. It is customary here to wait 24 or 48 hours before accepting an answer. It allows people from all timezones to attempt answering it, without feeling their input is not welcome already. And they may have many interesting perspectives. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Feb 26 '18 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know how a sewing machine works exactly, but I presume that you do. Does it contain any springs which need to function many many times? If yes, then the Romans couldn't have done it -- they didn't have spring steel. Does it contain lots of small gears? If yes, then depending on how small the gears are, they may not have been able to do it; and depending on how many they are, it might have cost a fortune. Does it have gears which need to transmit power at high rotational speed? If yes, then the Romnas couldn't have done it -- they had no idea on how to cut precise gear teeth. Etc. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 26 '18 at 14:21
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Yes, they could. From the writings by Hero of Alexandria, it is clear the Classical Age was full of machines and automatons if you had enough money to pay for the construction and maintenance.

A Roman engineer could have created a sewing machine connected to a waterwheel. They had water powered factories, like the one in Barbegal

enter image description here

They never did it because they didn't have the need of:

  1. Most families had a vertical loom, which means women and girls produced most of the clothes for the family at home.

  2. Roman clothes didn't need much sewing, because they were composed of wide pieces of cloth wrapped around the body

  3. According to Martial (c. 90 AD) clothes were quite affordable. A cheap tunic was according to him 5 sesterces in a time they did 3-4 each working day.

Without a necessity not covered by the population or even slaves, new inventions aren't carried away.

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    $\begingroup$ Perfect! Thank you very much. I was actually thinking about sewing leather armors and ship sails in large amounts, that's what the machines would be for. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre S. Feb 26 '18 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ You may have noticed that the watermills in the picture use very large gears rotating at very low speed. A sewing machine has many small parts moving at high speed. The two problems are only very distantly related. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 26 '18 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ The observation was intended to convey the idea that tiny fast-moving gears are a different engineering problem than large slow-moving gears. The Romans had no idea of how to cut the precise teeth (and didn't even have a name for the geometrical curves) need in order to allow gears to mesh at high speed without jamming. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 26 '18 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP: Sewing machines, at least of the older treadle-driven sort once used for home sewing, don't have fast-moving gears. I think the real problem in the Roman era would be the production of fine, uniform thread. It's rather like modern guns: the real problem isn't the machine itself, but the things you need to keep it going... $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Feb 26 '18 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Of course that image only depicts large gears - it is showing a grain mill. Smaller gears are hardly difficult, and I would have expected that everyone had heard of the Antikythera mechanism by now. Small gearing was not unknown, nor were people of the pass such drooling idiots that they couldn't figure out simple mechanics (we are talking about Roman engineering here). $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Feb 27 '18 at 22:07
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For everyone talking about metal manufacturing--you can stop now. Because there have been all wood sewing machines in the past, with just a few select metal parts (like the needle, and yes, even that can be wood!)

Wood and shell needles can actually be used in machines like this. Further, they don't have to be absolutely straight. They shouldn't be crooked, but a craftsman could surely fashion one straight enough. Iron and bronze might corrode and stain the clothes, but keep in mind that machine maintenance in early models was a big deal, and you can bet that needles would be replaced and re-sharpened far more regularly than they would have time to corrode.

Needles will have to be replaced because they will break on the regular. But that's fine because the speed is good enough that the time lost in that would be worthwhile, probably.

You don't need something as fancy as a water wheel--early machines used people power. They were mechanical, but one person would work the crank and one would feed through. There are a ridiculous amount of types and kinds of sewing machines.

Now, you haven't said money was any object, otherwise I would say that just keeping your machine in needles (because they will have to specially crafted and will need replacing A LOT) might not make a sewing machine cost effective at all.

You indicated you wanted to do leather and canvas in one of your comments. These materials are harder to work with than standard fabrics (even though the first machines were built with this in mind, it's actually more of an engineering feat because of the thickness and toughness of the fabrics in question).

The question then becomes: what's cheaper, manpower or maintaining a machine that needs constant maintenance and specialized expensive parts. Of course your super villain or whatever might not care about that...

In the course of human history, we've had the ability to do things sometimes for entire millenia before we bothered to make it widespread. Like the Chinese invented loads of stuff, then went, "eh, this was a cool experiment but eh." while the technology and parts can technically exist to make a thing, that doesn't mean that it's been worthwhile enough to pursue. Whatever the patent records say, I will bet you that a sewing machine has been invented way before that maybe even by the Greeks--but that the reaction was probably "Oh that's neat. Cool toy." and then it gathered dust somewhere before being sold off as scrap or burned. The first ones we actually know about came into being because people wanted a quicker and cheaper way to meet demand. People do what's practically profitable.

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  • $\begingroup$ "all wood sewing machines in the past" Cool, can you please provide an example? The best I can google are machines with wooden case. $\endgroup$ – Vashu Feb 26 '18 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Vashu The specific one I am thinking of is Thomas Saint's machine--though the replica is a mix of metal--that's the one made by Newton Wilson, but the original was all wood other than the needle, I believe. You aren't going to find any pictures of any that are all wood, because by the sewing machine golden age in the 1800s, metal was best and used for everything. But the early, early models, that were not preserved like Saint's, were made with looms in mind. The models I am talking about are from before there were major patents filed--so before 1800. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Feb 27 '18 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ ismacs.net/sewing_machine_history.html "Barthelemy Thimonnier who, in 1830 ... his machine which was built almost entirely of wood" PIC science4fun.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/… $\endgroup$ – Vashu Feb 27 '18 at 4:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Vashu Good luck finding a picture of it though! That one is post 1800, but most of the preserved ones are like from the later half of 1800s, and metal keeps better. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Feb 27 '18 at 4:25
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    $\begingroup$ I upvoted this, and consider it superior to Alberto's answer based on the power source discussion. I have an antique foot-powered sewing machine in my house. A water wheel for power would be huge overkill here. Water power is a good solution for weaving, but not necessary for sewing. $\endgroup$ – tbrookside Apr 23 at 12:30
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Either the Thomas Saint sewing machine from 1790 or the Charles Wiesenthal's proposed embroidery machine from 1755 (as far as I've found the only evidence is a patent for a needle design) is generally considered the first sewing machine.

From the design illustration filed with the patent it seems like Saint's machine could have been invented earlier. Most parts (such as gears, cogwheels and cranks were known by the roman empire by at least early third century BC) the question would be whether current time metalworking would allow sufficient miniaturization of these components (The Antikythera device suggests that it would at least around 2nd century BC).

So, in theory... yes, I think they could have. But as Alberto Yagos said before me. The need never arose. Mainly because almost any manual labor can be solved by tossing more slaves unto it. Is one slave to slow to sew tunics for your army? Try two slaves, or ten, or one hundred... we'll have a sweatshopatorium set up right by the pottery workshop, the cattle yard and the tanners.

If you manage to invent a reason for them to need the machine though, I think they could have invented it.

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No, they wouldn't: Their needles were not strong, straight, cheap enough for using them in a machine, because their iron wasn't strong and cheap enough for that. Romans used iron needles, but kept using ivory and bronze ones as iron would corrode and might stain the clothes.

Also, iron wire-drawing wasn't developed until the tenth century, and prior the needles had to be forged.

Steel needle-making requires a knowledge of heat treatment through annealing, hardening, and tempering.

Source: Findings: The Material Culture of Needlework And Sewing, found with Google.

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Maybe yes, but without machine-made sewing thread that invention would be mostly useless.

Sewing machines are capable of greatly increasing the sewing speed, but they require high quality, uniform sewing thread that wasn't available until the Industrial Revolution. Using preindustrial thread would result in a much slower process, with the thread snapping or jamming all the time.

It's like you can build a race car, but what would you do with it if there are no roads?

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  • $\begingroup$ Rally of course! $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Feb 26 '18 at 21:06

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