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