The 13th Child

“It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment.” 

Sir Richard Arkwright
Sir Richard Arkwright

The Industrial Revolution did not happen overnight; rather it was a series of innovations that began in the second half of the 18th century that came together in a synergistic flow that caused an unstoppable movement.  We like to believe that an idea can change the course of history; most times, it is a chain, or sequence, rather than an idea, in isolation, that creates the transformation.  The advances of the Industrial Revolution appear to be meticulously orchestrated; to me, however, they took on the randomized form of a jigsaw puzzle.  Most fascinating are the stories of those who became the change-agents, the leaders of the Industrial Revolution. Creative genius, after all, is found in unlikely places.

Richard Arkwright was the 13th child, the youngest, born into to desperately poor family living in the small market town of Preston, Lancashire.  The year was 1732, the same year that announced the birth of George Washington, first President of the United States, Joseph Haydn, Austrian composer, Jacques Necker, the finance minister of the ill-fated Louis XVI, and Frederick North, Lord North, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  While each of these men would take their place in history, it would be Richard Arkwright who would have the most lasting global influence. Even though his name is no longer  a household word, history records Richard Arkwright as the creator of the modern factory system.  The clothes that we wear today had their origins in a 13th child from humble origins.

Richard Arkwright’s story is as complex as the age into which he was born. Ambitious, brilliant and a shrewd businessman, he evokes both admiration and dismay.  To this very day, many believe that he was a cheat and thief, while others consider him one of the greatest minds of his age.  It is a narrative worth pursuing.

“Here, then, is the “curse” of our factory-system; as improvements in machinery have gone on, the “avarice of masters” has prompted many to exact more labour from their hands than they were fitted by nature to perform, and those who have wished for the hours of labour to be less for all ages than the legislature would even yet sanction, have had no alternative but to conform more or less to the prevailing practice, or abandon the trade altogether.”

P. Gaskell, The Manufacturing Population of England. London, 1833