Outliers & The Man from Wales

“To train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first object of society, to which every other will be subordinate”.

(The Social System, 1826) From the Foundation Axioms of Owen’s “Society for Promoting National Regeneration”


In statistics, an outlier is simply an observation that is situated a significant distance from the expected range of values.  When you apply the term outlier to an individual, this definition comes alive with expressions such as: maverick, eccentric, nonconformist, and outsider.  We like to belong to a group, a community, an organization, working together in harmony with others for a common cause. Very few would choose to stand apart from the group, to be an outlier.  It is the outliers, however, that make us re-examine prevailing standards and trends, motivating us to set course in a new direction.

Robert Owen was an outlier, a change agent, by words and actions.  Born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown, a small market town in Montgomeryshire, Wales, he became a social reformer and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. He believed that when people cared about each other it would generate extraordinary outcomes for society

At the young age of 29, Robert was part-owner of a Manchester cotton mill.  While on a visit to Glasgow, he fell in love with Caroline Dale, the daughter of David Dale, proprietor of the New Lanark cotton mills in Scotland.  These mills had been opened in 1785 by David Dale and Sir Richard Arkwright.  After his marriage to Caroline, Robert became manager and part-owner of New Lanark

Robert’s priority was the workers whose livelihoods depended upon employment within his mills.  He enhanced their housing and sanitation, provided medical supervision, and set up a cooperative shop that sold provisions near cost.  His greatest dream was to educate children.  He established the first infant school in Great Britain based on his deeply held belief that improved circumstances would act as a beacon of hope.

“Women will be no longer made the slaves of, or dependent upon men…They will be equal in education, rights, privileges and personal liberty.”

Robert Owen, (1771-1858) Book of the New Moral World: Sixth Part, 1841

Robert’s life was dedicated to building a fairer society where all could live without fear of hunger or want, secure in the knowledge that their children would be educated and that their efforts would be valued.  Both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels paid tribute to Robert, as the man who gave them the basis for their theories. Even in today’s world, Robert Owen’s ideas remain remarkably relevant.

It has been said that when Robert Owen was on his deathbed, a minister asked if he regretted wasting his life on fruitless projects.  His response was simply:

“My life was not useless; I gave important truths to the world, and it was only for want of understanding that they were disregarded. I have been ahead of my time.”

All the Children

The smallest child in the factories were scavengers……they go under the machine, while it is going……….it is very dangerous when they first come, but they become used to it.”

Charles Aberdeen worked in a Manchester cotton factory, written in 1832.

A Child's Place

Men of business and creative inventors are lauded for their contribution to the rise of the Industrial Revolution, but their success, esteem and wealth was built on the sweat and tears of the most vulnerable of society.  The strength and force of the Industrial Revolution was brought about by tiny hands with courageous hearts. They worked in squalid conditions and suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of employers, overseers and co-workers who lacked compassion and common decency.   Illness and death, ever present within the walls of the cotton mills and the deep pits of the coal mines, visited the youngest most often.

The Industrial Revolution did not give birth to child labour, for children have been involved with work throughout history.  Rather, industrialization was the fertile milieu that nurtured a dramatic increase in the use of children.  Factories and mines required workers to complete relatively simple tasks that could easily be accomplished by children.  Poverty and want produced a workforce susceptible to exploitation.

When there is progress in one area, there is progress in many areas.  Where there is injustice there are those who stand firm in their commitment to humanity.  For if one suffers, do we not all suffer?  The plight of the child workers did not go unnoticed.  Public outcry reached the ears of Queen Victoria and gave way to Parliamentary enquiries which culminated in two important pieces of legislation – the Factory Act (1833) and the Mines Act (1842).

A society is defined by individual choices, the most important being how to care for the next generation.

“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.”
Fred Rogers

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

Next Post – Mighty Machines

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