Jan Matzeliger was born in 1852 in Surinam. When he was 21, he traveled to the United States, though he spoke no English. He got a job as an apprentice in a shoe factory in Massachusetts. At the time, the shoe industry was held captive by skilled craftsman known as hand lasters. The hand lasters had the hardest and most technical job on the shoe assembly line; they had to fit shoe leather around a mold of a customer's foot and attach it to the sole of the shoe. A good hand laster could complete about 50 pairs of shoes a day, and because the work was so skilled, hand lasters were paid very large salaries, which made shoes very expensive to produce.
Matzeliger got tired of waiting for the lasters to do their jobs; because they worked so slowly, there were huge backups on the assembly line. He went to night school to learn English so that he could read books about science and manufacturing. He had no money, so he constructed models from spare parts and scraps. After years of study, he produced a shoe lasting machine, which produced between 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day to the hand laster's 50 [source: MIT]. Matzeliger died at a young age of influenza, but he left a legacy of more affordable shoes for the general public.