Mighty Machines

Shop Floor

The Shop Floor, Masson Mills

Mark Frauenfeder, Editor-in-chief, Make, wrote the “The spinning wheel made England into a powerhouse.”  The spinning wheel in question, however, was not a home-style spinning wheel that resided in a rustic cottage in the country. The textile machines of the eighteenth century transformed a nation.  Great Britain’s dominance in the textile industry was safeguarded because of laws that prohibited the export of textile machinery and anything that could lead to another country gaining a competitive advantage. These inventions belonged to Britain. No machinery, machinery drawings or written specifications were to leave the country.

These mighty machines were complicated, noisy, and extremely dangerous to operate.  The two main “mighty machines” were the power-loom, a steam-powered, mechanically operated version of a regular loom for weaving. And the spinning frame which produced stronger threads, quickly and efficiently.

Beyond the borders of Great Britain, rumours of what these mighty machines could do stirred up envy in other countries. In 1786, the secret left the country with two Scots who immigrated to the United States.   Claiming to be well-versed in Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame, the U.S. government invested a goodly sum into their inventing endeavours. Alas, the machines were sub-standard.  But the race for a home-grown American textile industry was set in motion.

Richard Arkwright’s factory system would be exported to America. A young man from Milford, England would become known as the Founder of American Industrial Revolution.  Progress cannot be contained, despite all attempts to limit possibilities.   John Galsworthy (The Forsyte Saga) once wrote, “Men are in fact, quite unable to control their own inventions; they at best develop adaptability to the new conditions those inventions create.” 

Next posts:

  • All the Children
  • The Man from Wales
  • Coming to America

Claims & Counterclaims

“Friendship is like money, easier made than kept.”

Samuel Butler


The Patent Race ended in a courtroom.  In 1775, Richard Arkwright, ever the astute entrepreneur, patented an assortment of machinery for manufacturing cotton.  Before long, much to his dismay no doubt, he was beset by a series of court cases that challenged his patents.

Thomas Highs, John Kay, John Kay’s wife, and the widow of James Hargreaves steadfastly alleged that Richard Arkwright intentionally stole their inventions.  As with any court proceedings, the details of the transactions were complex. In this case, the new technologies which involved intricate mechanisms such as feeder, roving can, crank and comb, and rolling spinning, made it more problematic.  It was difficult to sort out all of the facts, the dates, the witness accounts.

In 1785, despite valiant efforts to defend his position, Richard Arkwright lost in the courts.  Considered copies of the invention of others, his patents were revoked.

So what happened to our players?

James Hargreaves patented a sixteen spindle spinning jenny on July 12, 1770.  His invention introduced labour-saving technology that had a direct impact on the employment levels of the spinning community.  Recall that hand spinners, fearing for their livelihood, broke into his house and destroyed a few of his spinning jennies.  However, not even the spectre of unemployment stopped the sale of his machines, which enabled him to support his large family.  When he moved to Nottingham in 1768, he partnered with Thomas James to build a small mill which housed jennies used to spin yarn for hosiers.   James Hargreaves did not live to see Richard Arkwright’s patents revoked, but he lived comfortably until his death in 1778.

John Kay, the clock-maker, worked with Richard Arkwright for twenty-one years, pledging to keep their methods secret. In 1769, they constructed the first working mill powered by horses.  Richard Arkwright never gave any credit to John Kay, despite his invaluable contributions.  They had a falling out when Arkwright accused Kay of giving their design to James Hargreaves.  On his side, Kay accused Arkwright of stealing his work tools.  Their relationship was abruptly dissolved.

Thomas Highs, the reed-maker, claimed several patents which included the spinning jenny, a carding machine and a water frame.  After he and John Kay had run out of money, he continued fine-tuning his inventions.  In 1770/71, while living in Manchester, he constructed a double-jenny, which had twenty-eight spindles on each side. Shortly thereafter he constructed a carding-engine.  The meeting with Samuel Crompton of Bolton produced the spinning Mule, which combined the roller-spinning frame and the spinning jenny.  During the 1780’s he spent time in Ireland before being called back to give testimony at the 1785 patent trial.  He died in 1803 at the age of eighty-four, outliving them all.

Despite the setback of revoked patents in 1785, Richard would go on to receive a knighthood in 1786 and become High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1787.  By the time of his death, five years later on August 3, 1792, his factories in Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire and Scotland had made him a very wealthy man.


Most historians agree that Richard Arkwright’s factories was a grand start to the industrial revolution.   Richard Arkwright may have taken the ideas of Thomas Highs, John Kay and James Hargreaves, but there is evidence that he improved upon their initial work.  It was said that he was so obsessed with spinning machines that his second wife destroyed his development models in hopes that he would return to the security of wig making.  That was not to be.  Richard Arkwright’s destiny was to be the first to build a steam-powered textile factory and be given the title of “Father of the Factory System.”

Water Buckets

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The Patent Race

“The spinning wheel made England into a powerhouse.”
Mark Frauenfelder, Editor-in-chief, MAKE

Cotton Thread

We like to choose sides. It makes everything less complex because we allow ourselves to identify emotionally with something we value deeply. We cheer for a home team to show loyalty to our community. We give to a special cause because we believe in their mission statement. We evaluate situations based on right and wrong because we want, in the end, to achieve a fair and equitable society.

The Richard Arkwright narrative presents us with a dilemma. Which side should we choose? Did Richard Arkwright take advantage of Thomas Highs, John Kay and James Hargreaves? Or should we applaud Richard Arkwright for introducing a business model that provided employment for thousands in his time and for which we continue to receive benefit today? When we look back, it is easy to apply the perspective of our generation and pronounce judgement. Perhaps it would be better to ask whether there was an alternative.  Could these events have unfolded in a more equitable fashion?

The background story:  Between 1763-1764 Thomas Highs, the reed-maker, commissioned John Kay, the clock-maker and close neighbour, to build a working metal model of Highs’ invention, a cotton-spinning machine.   Thomas Highs, who lacked the finances to develop or patent his idea, eventually abandoned the project.  Around the same time, Richard Arkwright’s interest in the textile trade had reached the stage of exploration.  Some would say it was a lucky coincidence that he met John Kay on one of his business trips.  Over drinks at a local pub, John Kay furnished Richard Arkwright with the secrets of Thomas Highs’ machine.  In 1768, Arkwright and Kay set up shop in Nottingham, the centre of the textile trade and the home of James Hargreaves.  Arkwright, with monies from his wig enterprise, employed Kay to produce the spinning frame based on Highs’ invention.

Masson Mill - Spinning Frame

Masson Mill – Spinning Frame

In 1769, ever the shrewd businessman, Richard Arkwright patented the water-frame, which was the water-powered version of the spinning frame.  Meanwhile, in 1770, James Hargreaves, took steps to patent his invention, the spinning jenny, so he could take legal action against all of the Lancashire manufacturers who were using his invention without giving him credit or monetary compensation. In 1775, Richard Arkwright applied for a variety of patents, all relating to the manufacturing of cotton thread, from cleaning, carding to the final spinning process.   With the patents securely in place, Richard Arkwright moved a step closer to securing his fortune from manufacturing cotton thread used to produce a cheap white or unbleached cotton fabric. The claims and counterclaims would come, but the textile industry’s transformation was underway.

The Arkwright narrative demonstrates that technological advances are a result of combined talents.  Without the creative genius of Thomas Highs, Richard Arkwright’s vision to produce inexpensive cloth would not have come into being.   Similarly, without the entrepreneurship of Richard Arkwright, the technology may never have gathered momentum.

This defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship – the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.” 
Peter F. Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles


Next Post – Claims & Counterclaims


James Hargreaves – Another Genius

 “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Arthur Schopenhauer


There is a distinct cachet attached to the word “genius” for therein lies the suggestion that whomever possesses this gift transcends the realm of mere mortals.   While many attempt to quantify and qualify the “genius” classification, most of us find our definition via individuals who have displayed an exceptional intelligence or creativity.  Generally, we recognize it after the fact, rather than anticipate the occurrence.

James Hargreaves was an unlikely candidate for genius-hood. His birth was recorded in 1720 in the hamlet of Knuzden Brook near Blackburn, Lancashire.  Without formal education, he was unable to read or write.  He was a carpenter and weaver, occupations typical of Blackburn, a town known for the production of linen warp (lengthwise yarns/threads on a loom) and cotton weft (yarns/threads drawn through the warp to create cloth). Married with a large family, where would James have found the time to transform the weaving industry?  For that is exactly what he did when he invented the spinning jenny.  It was an engineering feat that would have far reaching consequences within his lifetime. Indeed, James’s  invention introduced a spinning technique that was a key factor in the emergence  of the Industrial Revolution.

The story goes that Jenny, one of James’s daughters unintentionally knocked over the family spinning wheel which caused the spindle to carry on revolving.  The idea that a whole line of spindles could be worked off one wheel came to him at that very moment.   It seems that Jenny never existed; and we will never know with certainty that a revolving spindle caused an “ah ha” moment.  What we do know is that James built a machine that placed eight spindles side by side so that several threads could be spun at the same time.

Here is where it gets interesting.  James kept his invention secret.  He built a machine for family use, but it wasn’t long before he sold the machines to a few of his neighbours.  At first everyone was pleased.  That is, until the price of yarn plummeted.  The large spinning community of Blackburn, foreseeing the demise of their livelihoods, turned against James.  Several broke into his home and destroyed his machines.  James fled, with his family, to Nottingham.

And that is when fate brought him ever closer to Sir Richard Arkwright.

“Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.”

Alexander the Great







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
  • The Patent Race
  • Claims & Counterclaims
  • Mighty Machines
  • All the Children