Friday, 18 February 2011

David Smyth

During my recent visit to the newspaper library in Belfast, I was searching for a family history story in the Newtownards Chronicle, however during that search I found an interesting article on a local Newtownards man, David MacConnell Smyth, Inventor - I felt it was worth a blog.


David MacConnell Smyth died at the home of his son, David G. Smyth at Hartford, Connecticut USA, on October 11th, 1907 of a stroke of apoplexy.

Mr Smyth was born in Newtownards, on July 3rd, 1833. When he was two years old his parents were removed to America and settled at Hartford Pennsylvania, then as unbroken wilderness, where his father followed his occupation as a blacksmith and wheelwright.

When about 16 years of age Mr. Smyth left home and went to New York - to seek his fortune, walking most of the way and reaching his great city absolutely penniless. He was fortunate to find a silver shilling and, later, a silver dollar on the ferry dock and with this as a happy omen, began to search for work. He secured work with Mr Stephenson the car builder as a helper. Mr Smyth gradually acquired the trade of a machinist and soon promoted to a foreman ship his remarkable ingenuity and skill being quickly recognised and when a mere boy, was put in charge of much of the most difficult work in the factory.

Mr Smyth genius for invention developed rapidly and before he was of age he had made a number of valuable inventions, his Father giving him his time so he could set up his business for himself and his remarkable versatility soon placed him in the foremost rank of American Inventors.

Mr. Smyth was a pioneer in the sewing machine art and secured a number of patents in this field, an intensely close observer of what came before him and his wonderful ability to see how things might be done mechanically, led him in many different directions. His was the first automatic machine for the manufacture of envelopes. His automatic clutch was probably the first mechanical device for instantly stopping machinery. A machine for making imitation lace from paper was noted for its remarkable ingenuity.

An exceedingly ingenious sewing machine feed whereby an unlimited number of intricate fancy stitches could be made with an ordinary sewing machine brought Mr. Smyth into associated with the shoe trade and a number of inventions rapidly followed each other in the field - a shoe pegging machine and a nail driving machine the forerunner of the present lasting machine being the most noted.

Early in life Mr. Smyth became associated with Thomas A. Edison in the development of electrical machinery. An electric motor was constructed undoubtedly the first of the kind for driving an ordinary sewing machine but the proposition failed because at that time it was necessary to use a cumbersome wet battery to supply the power. A beginning had however, been made and for the first time an ordinary machinery had been driven by an electrical current. The close friendship formed between these two remarkable men ended only at Mr. Smyth’s death.

In 1846 Mr. Smyth invented the first book sewing machine and a number of these machines were built under his patent. These machines were purchased by D. Appleton and Co. for their exclusive use and the invention was withdrawn from the market.

In 1879 Mr. Smyth perfected his curved needle book sewing machine and constructed a small wooden model to demonstrate his invention. He became associated with Mr. G. Wells Root of Hartford, Connecticut and between them they organised the Smyth Manufacturing Company of that City. From that insignificant wooden model which Mr. Root was always fond of saying "he could put it in his hat" grew and immense business, which has paid out many thousands of dollars in dividends. Soon thereafter Mr. Smyth set up his a business for himself and his remarkable versatility soon placed him in the foremost rank of American Inventors.
In 1891 Smyth removed to Pasadena California and built a beautiful home in the shadow of the mountains, intending there to spend his declining years. After the death of Mrs. Smith in 1897, Mr. Smyth divided his time spending his time in his summer home in New Hampshire and his winters in either California or the South.

During the Civil War Mr. Smyth enlisted in the Eight Regiment of New York Volunteers, serving through two enlistments. He was married on December 31st 1855 to Orianna Slote, of New York City, and on her death in 1897 published a touching memorial full of love and devotion.

Besides being an inventor, Mr. Smyth was a poet and artist. He published in 1901 a book of Poems “The hermit of the Saco” containing many lines of unusual merit and many of his paintings won for him many of the highest praises. He was a devoted lover of nature and never so happy as when he could roam through the woods fishing, or in search of wild flowers.

Mr. Smyth is survived by his 4 sons E. L. Smyth, and artist living in Chicago, J. E. Smyth engaged in the book binding machinery business, also of Chicago, Prof. David G. Smyth and George B. Smyth of Hartford Connecticut.

I read many stories of folk emigrating from these shores to find fame, fortune or just plainly seeking a better life for themselves - but what sort of Country would we be living in now, if many of these talented and successful folk had stayed at home!



  1. That's a gem Mark - just shows how much important local history is waiting to be recovered. People who think that these things are of no importance are either delusional or stupid. Well done!

  2. Hi Mark;

    Yes, an excellent bit of local history - hopefully not lost! I will have to go to the newspaper library more often - hopefully the DECAL minister will keep it open!

    I will revisit the library to see if I can uncover a few more interesting bits n pieces.

    Thanks for looking in!