In 1871, he immigrated to the United States at age 18 and evidentually went to work in a shoe factory in Lynn, Massachussets (later to be known as the shoe capital of the world in part due to his lasting shoe invention). Shoes then were hand made, a slow tedious process. The shoe tops were sewn together, then the top was shaped over a wooden model of a human foot, called a "last." The top was then sewn to the inner sole. Bending, shaping, and holding the leather top while it was stitched to the bottom was difficult and took great skill. He worked ten hours a day operating a shoe stitching machine. Numerous shoe machine persons were attempting to mechanize the step, but were met with failure.
He helped revolutionize the shoe industry by developing a shoe lasting machine that would attach the sole to the shoe in one minute. To create his working model, he found odd parts, going without food at times to afford the materials. In 1881, he filed for a patent, however it was so complex, the patent office required additional information and a demonstration. Jan produced a fifteen page document and, after a patent reviewer travelled to Lynn, Massachusetts to watch the working model in action, his patent was approved in 1883. His shoe lasting machine adjusts the shoe leather upper snugly over the mold (also called a "last"), arranges the leather under the sole and pins it in place with nails while the sole is stitched to the leather upper.
Two businessmen funded the prototype in exchange for two-thirds of any profits. By 1885, when the production model was ready, he chose to sell for $15,000. His invention cut the cost of making shoes in half, so he actually lost a lot of money by selling his production model. Later, it was said his shoemaking machine increased shoemaking speed by 900 percent. Matzeliger's machine was able to turn out from 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day versus an expert hand lasters fifty.
Over the last seven years of his life, he invented other machines, taught oil painting, and enjoyed a small circle of friends. Additionally, once ostracized from church during his youth due to his race, he gained membership into a church in Lynn, Massachusetts and taught Sunday School. He died poor in 1889 at age 37 from Tuberculosis, leaving his drawing instruments, bible, technical books, and valuable stock options from his lasting machine to the church that had accepted him and his friends.
His invention was perhaps "the most important invention for New England," "the greatest forward step in the shoe industry," according to the church bulletin of The First Church of Christ (the same church that took him as a member) as part of a commemoration held in 1967 in his honor. Yet, because of the color of his skin, he was not mentioned in the history books until recently. In 1984, Lynn, Massachusetts named a bridge in honor of Jan Matzeliger and, 1992, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor.
Compiled from http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi522.htm, http://www.suite101.com/content/usps-black-heritage-stamps---jan-e-matzeliger-a268086, http://www.inventions.org/culture/african/matzeliger.html, and http://www.biography.com/articles/Jan-Earnst-Matzeliger-9402877.