Adventures, Ethics, Industrial Revolution, The Value of Life, Transitions

Demand Before Supply

“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.”

Adam Smith

 Cottage Industry

The Industrial Revolution is a story about transforming the workplace. Without this perspective, it is difficult to envision the enormous changes that occurred in the lives of those who lived during this time.  The brief lines in a history book rarely capture the angst of the participants who sustain these changes.   Looking back from our more “advanced” age, is seems as if the transition occurred within the normal patterns of progress, based on the demands of a growing population.

Consumption patterns during the Industrial Revolution increased dramatically, based on a generation eager to embrace consumerism as never before.  The textile industry’s growth was built on the insatiable appetite for cloth that was inexpensive and readily available. The only possible way to achieve economic success was to create machinery.    Which was easier said than done!

Textile production, as a cottage industry, had been in place for centuries.  Before the Industrial Revolution, whole families were engaged in what was known as the “domestic system.” Work was completed on a small scale at home, with everyone pitching in to help.  It was a laborious task, beginning with cleaning the wool after it had been sheared from the sheep, carding the wool to separate the fibres, and spinning the wool into a ball of yarn.   A skilled weaver would use a hand-loom to weave the yarn into a finished product that would be sold to a clothier.  Generally the spinning was considered a women’s work,usually unmarried; hence the word “spinster.”  Weaving was considered a masculine occupation.

The tipping point came with the importation of cotton.  With the surge in demand for cloth made out of cotton over the standard wool or flax, the finely tuned balance of demand and supply was upset. The existing system for producing the cotton thread (yarn) could not turn out enough thread for the looms.

What was once sufficient became outdated, inadequate and unwanted in a world impatient for progress.  The only alternative was to restructure work.  The cottage industry could not withstand the factory system.  There was no turning back.

“Prior to the industrial revolution, a working person would be lucky to have one or two shirts.”

James Meigs, Editor in Chief, Popular Mechanics


Next posts:

  • James Hargreaves, Another Genius
  • Claims & Counterclaims
  • Mighty Machines
  • All the Children
Adventures, Ethics, Industrial Revolution, The Value of Life, Transitions

Reeds, Clocks & Wigs

“My father told me, never have partners.”

Howard Hughes


Lancashire Countryside

The Richard Arkwright narrative integrates many themes, from innovation and development to human rights and international trade.   But it is first and foremost a story about people who lived within a time of unprecedented growth and expansion.  What were their thoughts, their responses, their hopes and dreams?  How did they participate within their work environments and social structures? These were the generations that offered the world a new reality and prepared the way for the Information Age.  Change thrives on human endeavour, which includes both individual and collective effort.  It was the interaction between these two forces that supplied the drama, as well as the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution.

Richard Arkwright, the Wig-maker from Preston Lancashire needed hair, in large quantities, to make his wigs.  He travelled throughout England collecting discarded hair.  His business was thriving, but the fickle tide of fashion was working against him.  In the early 1700’s, wearing a wig was the unquestionable mark of acceptable elegance, but by the 1760’s when Richard Arkwright entered the industry, more men were turning to their own hair. This caused a great deal of anxiety amongst the established wig-makers; they responded by asking the King to introduce a law requiring men to wear a wig.  Richard Arkwright was one step ahead of his peer group.  Men may not need wigs, but they needed clothes for themselves and their families.

Richard Arkwright had heard rumours that it was possible to invent machines to turn raw cotton into thread.  He was ready for career shift and had money to invest.  By the year 1763, weaving had benefited from advancements in automation.  Spinning, however, still relied on the hand wheel. While there had been attempts to use mechanical rollers, more work had to be completed to make it a profitable venture.

Meanwhile, in another part of Lancashire, Thomas Highs a reed maker and John Kay, a clockmaker had joined forces to construct a cotton-spinning machine.   Each man brought essential skills to the project.  Thomas Highs made reeds, a weaver’s instrument for separating the warp-threads (more on this later); John Kay applied his knowledge of small gears and fine clock mechanisms.  Between the years 1766 – 1767, Thomas Highs found a method of spinning by rollers, which John Kay developed into a trial machine.  Their problem – they ran out of money and had to abandon the project.

The pairing of innovation and money brings together unlikely partnerships. There is a caveat. Even with the most excellent of ideas, partnerships are subject to the risk of personal ambition and incompatible goals.  So it was with the Reed-maker, the Clock-maker and the Wig-maker.

“The poor man who enters into a partnership with one who is rich makes a risky venture.”

Titus Maccius Plautus, Roman Playwright


“No person will make a great business who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit.”
Andrew Carnegie

Richard Arkwright was destined to be called the “Father of the Industrial Revolution.” It is an appropriate title in many respects for he possessed the organizational ability to fit all of the “pieces of the puzzle” together. He was in the right place at the right time; he anticipated the demand and built the supply mechanism – the modern factory system.

It is possible, even probable, that one person will receive the acclaim and the accolades.  It is in our nature to ascribe credit to one person, to point to a singular incident or a specific discovery or invention.  Perhaps it is our way of simplifying the many small details, processes, iterations that work together to create the finished product. We do not usually have the time to ponder the sequence of events. Yet, most of us recognize there are many unsung, unknown people who have worked to bring an idea to life.  There is always more to the story; it is this “more” that makes the end result the stuff of legends.

William Shakespeare once wrote, All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.” There are many players on the Richard Arkwright “stage,” each one contributing to the success of the venture. Their lives were defined by the age in which they lived and their inherent desire to innovate. They looked beyond convention and shunned mediocrity.  They played their parts well. Curtain time…

The Pathway

Adventures, Ethics, Industrial Revolution, The Value of Life, Transitions

Who Gets the Credit?


Christmas Eve

“I wear the chain I forged in life….I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” 
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Every year at this time, I watch “A Christmas Carol” and consider the relevance of the message within our age.  Charles Dickens, an ardent social critic, understood his audience and the implications of his message. In its time, the book received instant notoriety and acceptance.  The narrative resonated within hearts awakened to the plight of those whom the Industrial Revolution had displaced and forced into poverty.  The universal appeal lies in the belief that a hardened heart can be softened, that generosity and kindness have the power to overcome greed and materialism.

“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” 
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

In the end, Ebenezer Scrooge vows, “I will live in the past, the present, and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me.”   This is indeed a happy finale.  Yet, my admiration is given to Jacob Marley, doomed to wander the earth with heavy chains forged by greed and selfishness.    Without Jacob, our dear Ebenezer would not have experienced redemption.  Jacob’s warning, given freely and without expectation for recompense, was the ultimate “good deed,” the catalyst for transformation.

The Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley partnership, which began when they were teenagers apprenticed in business, confirms decisions have profound influence on pathways taken.  One choice leads to another and another; life happens almost without notice.

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,’ faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.”

Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” 
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

In many respects, “A Christmas Carol” shares commonalities with the Richard Arkwright story. Consider we are at the beginning of Richard’s journey when he was full of youthful impetuosity and optimism. The partnerships formed during his life shaped his decisions and strategic direction.  In the end, he became a very rich man.

As we experience Christmas Eve, may it be said of us that we know how to keep Christmas well.

“God bless us, every one!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Adventures, Christmas, Clanmother, Ethics, Industrial Revolution, The Value of Life, Transitions

Partners, Choices and Pathways

Adventures, Ethics, Industrial Revolution, The Value of Life, Transitions

Wigs & Windows of Opportunity



It was an odd situation. For a century and a half, men got rid of their own hair, which was perfectly comfortable, and instead covered their heads with something foreign and uncomfortable. Very often it was actually their own hair made into a wig. People who couldn’t afford wigs tried to make their hair look like a wig.” 
Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life


The definition of a peruke or periwig, according to my Google search is: a type of wig for men, fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries.  The definition of a “window of opportunity,” which is common to every age, is a favourable opportunity for doing something that must be seized immediately.

Richard Arkwright understood both concepts and recognized their relevance in his life. His brilliance, in my estimation, was based on his ability to see the future needs of an agrarian society on the verge of an extraordinary transformation.  He identified many windows of opportunities during his lifetime, acting quickly, resourcefully, and efficiently to exploit them before they closed.  Perhaps his greatest talent was to partner with those who could help him realize his ambitions.

Education was expensive; young Richard was home-schooled by his cousin Ellen. In the early 1750’s, when he was in his twenties, he apprenticed as a barber and wig maker.  The attire of an 18th century gentleman included the essential periwig, powdered to give that characteristic white or off-white colour.  It was in those formative years as he worked on producing wigs, that Richard experienced a breakthrough.  He invented a waterproof dye for colouring wigs.  It was not long before he received a substantial income from this initiative.  He  would soon parlay this capital  into a cotton machinery enterprise.  Another window was about to open.

I imagine that there were people who asked, “Why didn’t I think of that?”    Perhaps the question that Richard Arkwright asked, “What could I invent that others need?”  He seemed to know the answer before anyone else.

We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work” 
 Thomas A. Edison