In 1845, Howe was desperately trying to work through technical problems with his invention, but he kept running into an infuriating brick wall when it came to the design of the needle. Well, according to members of his family, it finally all came to him in the course of a ludicrously violent and somewhat racist nightmare. In the dream, he had been captured by cannibals. As is typical of bloodthirsty natives, Howe's captors presented him with an ultimatum -- come up with a design for a working sewing machine, or face death. Just like in real life, he failed to live up to the task, and so the cannibals sentenced him to be stabbed to death with spears. Hey, this was the 1800s -- at the time, like every third person actually died this way.
Because this was a dream, rather than screaming and dying as people thrust spears into him, he noticed that each spears had a hole in the tip. Watching them puncture his flesh, going in and out, was allegedly the "Eureka!" moment that led to Howe figuring out that he needed to put a hole in the tip of the needle in his sewing machine. The device worked, and Howe died a rich man.
Now, it's entirely possible that this whole dream thing was a story made up by his descendants years later, but honestly, if they were going to invent an origin story, why would they come up with "Oh, it was all based on a racist stab dream. You know how he was"?
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