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

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

Who Gets the Credit?

“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