Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born on September 15, 1852 in Surinam (South America), the child of a biracial marriage. His father was a white engineer from Holland and his mother was a black woman in the Dutch colony. By his third birthday Matzeliger was sent to live with his father’s sister. By the time he turned 10 years old, Matzeliger became a worker in the machine shop that his father owned. It was at this time that he quickly became aware of his talent for working with machinery.
Although he was skilled in this area, Matzeliger did not initially pursue a career in engineering or inventing. In 1871 at the age of 19 he left Surinam and worked as a sailor for two years. By 1873 he settled in Philadelphia where he worked in a variety of trades. In 1876 he moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, the emerging center of the American shoe manufacturing industry.
Matzeliger arrived in Lynn barely able to speak English. Nonetheless he began working in a shoe factory. Despite his language difficulties, Matzeliger began working on various innovations that would improve shoe manufacturing productivity. On March 20, 1883, Matzeliger received patent no. 274, 207 for a “Lasting Machine” that rapidly stitched the leather and sole of a shoe. Matzeliger’s invention quickly made Lynn the “shoe capital of the world.” Matzeliger became one of the founders of the Consolidated Lasting Machine Company which was formed around his invention.
Matzeliger’s work habits and his neglect of his health, however, soon took a toll. In the summer of 1887, he caught a cold then developed tuberculosis. Jan Ernst Matzeliger died on August 24 of that year at the age of 39.
Rachel Kranz, The Biographical Dictionary of Black Americans (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1992), pp. 102-103; A Salute to Black Scientists & Inventors (Chicago: Empak Publishing Company), 1993, pp. 22-23.
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