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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
Stories about the lives we've made

story:Rise of the factory system

scene:Richard Arkwright

Richard Arkwright
Historically, spinning had been carried out using a spinning wheel. Although well suited to domestic production, this was unsuitable for factory use. It required great manual dexterity, and could only spin a single thread at a time. Wheel spinning was labour-intensive, slow and costly. Whoever could develop a cheaper alternative would enjoy high rewards.
Images with the text:
A Saxony spinning wheel. Using a rotating flyer to give continuous operation, this type of wheel was first used by German mining families to supplement their income.
The Man
Richard Arkwright was born on 23 October 1732, in Preston, Lancashire. Apprenticed to a barber, he later established a wigmaking business.
His travels collecting human hair made him aware of widespread attempts in the north of England to develop a mechanised spinning machine.
'a plain, almost gross, bag-cheeked, pot-bellied Lancashire man, with an air of painful reflection, yet also of copious free digestion ...what a historical phenomenon is that bag-cheeked, pot-bellied, much enduring, much-inventing barber! French Revolutions were a-brewing: to resist the same in any measure imperial Kaisers were impotent without the cotton and cloth of England; and it was this man that had to give England the power of cotton'.Thomas Carlyle's (historian and essayist) assessment of Arkwright, 1839.

Images with the text:
Richard Arkwright (1732-1792).
Richard Arkwright's business card.
The waterframe
In 1769 Arkwright patented his waterframe, the prototype of which was built by John Kay, a clockmaker from Preston. The prototype had four spindles, small enough to be turned by hand and used in the home. However, this was not Arkwright's intention. His patent envisaged the waterframe expanded in size, and operated in a factory by a central power source. Arkwright's first mill was constructed at Cromford, Derbyshire, in 1772. Powered by a waterwheel (hence the term ' waterframe'), it eventually employed 800 workers.
Images with the text:
Richard Arkwright's prototype waterframe, 1769.
Richard Arkwright's improved eight spool waterframe, used at his Cromford Mill, 1775.
Richard Arkwright's carding machine, used at his Cromford Mill, 1775.
Richard Arkwright's lantern drawing frame, c.1780.
Licenses
Arkwright licensed the use of the waterframe by others only in units of one thousand spindles. This allowed him to retain tight control over his patent while forcing licensees to adopt the same large, centrally-powered production techniques.
By 1778, 300 Arkwright-type mills had been constructed in Britain, making Arkwright a rich man and allowing him to leave £500,000 (over £34 million at today's prices) when he died in 1792.

Images with the text:
Richard Arkwright's Masson Mill, opened in Cromford Dale in 1783 (left).
Advertisements for millworkers for Richard Arkwright's Cromford Mill. Arkwright's mills helped create a local industrial workforce.
Advertisements for millworkers for Richard Arkwright's Cromford Mill. Arkwright's mills helped create a local industrial workforce.
Fraud?
Richard Arkwright fully exploited his new innovations. Spinners reported paying £2,000 (£150,000 at today's prices) for permission to use the waterframe, and £5,000 for the associated preparatory machinery, together with an annual royalty of £1,000.
Many spinners saw these fees as extortion. Arkwright was drawn into a four-year legal battle against those who pirated his machinery.
Arkwright lost his patent protection, on the basis that his description of his invention (or 'specification') was unclear. Then, this decision was overturned and Arkwright's patents were reinstated.
But his opponents were many and influential, and did not easily give up. In June 1785, in Westminster Hall, they came up with a startling allegation: that Arkwright was a fraud.
The case depended upon Thomas Highs. He had built a spinning machine identical to Arkwright's in 1767. Highs had been assisted by John Kay, who Arkwright later employed to build his own prototype.
Arkwright was unable to answer allegations that, through Kay, he had stolen Highs' design. The court found against Arkwright.
Images with the text:
The interior of Westminster Hall. For many years, the hall housed London's law courts.
Thomas Highs' spinning machine, 1767.
Legacy
Arkwright's commercial policies pushed producers towards a new concept of factory production. However, in doing so he became one of the most controversial figures of the Industrial Revolution.
Arkwright was not an inventor. Rather, he exploited other people's innovations. He concealed this by obtaining deliberately vague patents. The lesson learned in future was that patents should be scrupulously detailed, allowing infringements to be easily identified. Late in 1785, as if to symbolise his defeat, Arkwright's machinery was put on public display in London. Perhaps Arkwright only had himself to blame. The last, retrospective, word on him is best left to Matthew Boulton:
'Tyranny and an improper use of power will not do in this country. If Arkwright had been a more civilised being and understood mankind better, he would now have enjoyed his patent.'
From then on, the way was open to everyone.
Images with the text:
Swainson & Birley Cotton Mill near Preston, Lancashire, 1834.

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