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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