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Richard Arkwright: Father of the factory system

Published: 29 July 2019

Discover how Richard Arkwright kick-started a transformation in the textiles industry and created a vision of the machine-powered, factory-based future of manufacturing.

Since the early 18th century, manufacturers had been looking for inventive ways to meet the ever-growing demand for cotton cloth and yarn. Finally, in 1767, a breakthrough came when a Lancashire entrepreneur, Richard Arkwright (1732–92), devised a simple but remarkable spinning machine. Replacing the work of human hands, the water frame made it possible to spin cotton yarn more quickly and in greater quantities than ever before.

Craze for cotton

Cotton cloth has been made around the world for thousands of years. Merchants first brought it to Britain from India around 500 years ago. It was lighter, brighter and could be washed and dried more easily than the heavy, woollen fabrics that people in Britain were used to. It was also a valuable trading commodity, with merchants exchanging cloth for goods across the world.

Cotton cloth made in India and sold in Britain, about 1700 Science Museum Group Collection Image source
Cotton cloth made in India and sold in Britain, about 1700

The craze for cotton drove entrepreneurial makers in Britain to search for ways to meet the rising demand. Some began experimenting with the development of spinning machines, which they hoped would speed up the production of cotton yarn by taking over the slow work done by human hands using spinning wheels. 

What is spinning?

When cotton is picked from the plant it grows on, the weak fibres break and pull apart easily. To make cotton strong enough to be woven into cloth, it first needs to be spun. Spinning is the process of twisting together drawn-out fibres of cotton into a strong, single strand, called yarn.

A small pile of raw cotton on a white background Science Museum Group Collection
Spun cotton Science Museum Group Collection
Raw cotton (top) and spun yarn (above)
Illustration of a woman operating a spinning wheel Science Museum Group Collection
A woman using a spinning wheel to make yarn. Hand spinners could create high quality thread, but it was a slow process that could not meet the rising demand for yarn to make cloth.

Despite ambitious attempts, including the roller spinning machine devised by Lewis Paul and John Wyatt in 1738, none succeeded in developing a reliable and efficient machine able to spin yarn of the desired quality.

At the same time, Richard Arkwright, a determined Lancashire businessperson who realised the profit-making potential of cotton spinning, had been keeping a close eye on their efforts and their mistakes.

Arkwright's breakthrough

Arkwright was born in 1732 in Preston to a poor family, and had already developed a successful hair-cutting and wig-making business in Bolton by the time he became interested in cotton spinning.

Portrait of Richard Arkwright, wearing a red coat and powdered wig Science Museum Group Collection Image source
Portrait of Richard Arkwright by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1790

In 1767, he met John Kay, a skilled clockmaker with the technical ability needed to build machines. With Kay, Arkwright developed his first prototype spinning machine. Initially designed to be driven by horsepower, the machine's moving rollers drew out the cotton fibres, imitating the action of a hand spinner's fingers. Then, its rotating spindles twisted the cotton into yarn and wound it onto a bobbin.

Arkwright's prototype spinning machine Science Museum Group Collection Image source
Water frame patent drawing Science Museum Group Collection
Arkwright's prototype spinning machine (top) and the drawing (above) he submitted with his patent application in 1768

Although other makers had also been working on spinning machines using a similar principle, Arkwright made crucial developments that set his machine apart, succeeding where others had failed.  After months of experimentation and adjustment, he discovered the correct spacing for the rollers that drew out the cotton fibre, and hung weights from the top set of rollers so they could grip the bottom rollers firmly. 

Nevertheless, challenges to the originality of Arkwright's designs plagued him throughout his life (see 'Arkwright on trial' below).

Creating a factory system

Granted a patent in 1769 for his machine, Arkwright and his business partners were determined to make money from the invention. They built a huge, multi-storey factory in Cromford, Derbyshire, alongside the fast-flowing River Derwent.

A handwritten business agreement with red wax seals Science Museum Group Collection
Section of the business agreement signed between Richard Arkwright and his partners John Smalley and David Thornley in 1768

Arkwright had realised that waterpower, rather than horsepower, was the most efficient way to run his machines. Huge waterwheels installed at the mill, driven by the river, provided the rotary motion to drive the machinery. Thereafter, Arkwright's spinning machines became known as water frames.

Arkwright's water frame Science Museum Group Collection Image source
Four spindled water frame built in around 1775 and used at Arkwright's mill in Matlock Bath
A model, scale 1:32, of an 18th century water-powered textile mill; the model is based on drawings of the Collycroft worsted mill, Bedworth, Warwickshire Science Museum Group Collection Image source
Model of a water powered spinning machine, showing how the water wheel drives the machines with a series of interconnected cogs, gears and belts.

The ingenious design of the water frame meant the machines could be operated by unskilled workers. As long as they kept them fed with cotton, pieced up any breakages in the yarn and changed full bobbins for empty ones, the water frames could churn out huge quantities of strong and even yarn, which weavers needed to produce cotton cloth.

Arkwright had turned a mechanical principle into a consistently productive, industrial machine.

Richard Arkwright's mill in Cromford, Derbyshire, by Joseph Wright of Derby, around 1795 Creative Commons Image source
Richard Arkwright's mill in Cromford, Derbyshire, by Joseph Wright of Derby, around 1795

The Cromford mill expanded rapidly and Arkwright built further mills across Derbyshire and Lancashire. He continued to innovate—for example, his Manchester mill on Miller Street was the first spinning mill to make use of steam power.

Arkwright also made connections in Scotland, expanding his spinning operations north of the border. He amassed a huge fortune from his cotton spinning empire by selling the yarn produced in his mills and licensing his machinery to other manufacturers.

Arkwright on trial

Richard Arkwright was a ruthless businessperson. In 1781, he took legal action again nine Manchester spinning firms who were using his inventions without license. The Manchester manufacturers argued that they should have the freedom to use the machinery as they wished. 

In response to Arkwright's challenges, manufacturers called into question the validity of Arkwright's patents, arguing that they did not demonstrate the originality of his inventions. A series of court cases followed, culminating in the patent trial of June 1785, where Arkwright was accused of copying the spinning invention of a machine maker called Thomas Highs. Highs told the court that the rollers used on Arkwright's water frame had been devised by him. Arkwright's carding engine patent was also challenged. 

The court brought a verdict against Arkwright, cancelling both of his patents, much to the satisfaction of cotton manufacturers who from then on, were free to use his inventions without restriction.

Working lives transformed

By 1800, almost 1,000 men, women and children were employed in Arkwright's mills and thousands of others worked in factories set up by other profit-seeking entrepreneurs. Working lives were transformed. Instead of spinning at home, people now worked long, repetitive and exhausting days in huge, multi-storey mills, looking after the machines. In the earliest days of Arkwright's mills, production went on around the clock, with two 13-hour shifts per day.

The profits arising from the machinery of Sir Richard Arkwright were so considerable, that it frequently happened… that the machinery was employed for the whole four-and-twenty hours.

Sir Robert Peel (1816)

Working a set number of hours to the pace of the mill's machinery was a completely new way of life. High temperatures and dust levels in the factories compounded the demanding hours of labour and monotony of the work. Working amongst the roaring machines without protection, many workers also experienced hearing loss. There were no effective laws to regulate mill work and look after the safety of workers until well into the 19th century.

Engraving showing different stages in producing cotton fabric Science Museum Group Collection Image source
Mill workers using carding engines c. 1800

Arkwright patented a carding engine in 1774. Carding is the process of combing out the cotton fibres, ready to be spun. Once Arkwright's water frames increased the amount of cotton that could be spun, manufacturers also needed powered machines to get enough cotton ready for spinning.
 

Arkwright's legacy

By transferring cotton spinning from the home to huge, powered mills filled with hundreds of workers, Arkwright showed it was possible to set up a purpose-built factory, install a power source, equip it with machinery, hire a workforce and make a profit. 

Other factory owners modelled their mills on Arkwright's example. Although his water frame was ultimately replaced by a more advanced spinning machine, the mule, developed in 1775 by Samuel Crompton, Arkwright transformed the cotton industry and made a significant contribution to the growth of the factory system of production which we recognise today.

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