Arkwright: Cotton King or Spin Doctor?

By Fisk, Karen | History Today, March 1998 | Go to article overview
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Arkwright: Cotton King or Spin Doctor?

Fisk, Karen, History Today

Was Richard Arkwright really the mechanical genius of the Industrial Revolution? Karen Fisk questions his record as Britain's first cotton tycoon.

Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-92) is usually credited with revolutionising the technical basis of cotton production between 1768 and 1792, transforming it from a cottage industry to one of worldwide proportions. Apart from developing machinery to do the work, he is credited with creating the factory system, earning him such titles as a `founding father' of the Industrial Revolution and the `father of the factory system'. Undoubtedly an inspirational figure of the eighteenth century, he emerged from a working-class background and achieved immense wealth. However, closer scrutiny of the evidence raises uncertainties about the traditionally accepted view of Arkwright, the mechanical genius, and his technical achievements.

Indeed, it appears that Arkwright's first patent was obtained by simply improving existing spinning frames. Having trained as a barber, Arkwright was unlikely to have possessed the technical skills required to produce these machines himself. It therefore seems curious that Arkwright achieved such recognition for the invention, which proved a catalyst to all the events that followed. So how and why has Arkwright been made the Cotton King?

Until the early eighteenth century, most of Britain's cloth was made from wool in areas where there were both sheep and ample water for the various processes, such as the West Country, Yorkshire and Lancashire; with most of the manufacture being carried out in the workers' homes. The system had lasted for centuries, but in 1702 a major turning point occurred when Thomas Cotchett, an elderly barrister, together with the engineer George Sorocold, built a silk mill powered by a waterwheel on the Derwent at Derby. This mill has good claim to the title of being the first factory, in the sense that it was a single establishment with complex machinery, a source of power, and accommodation for a number of workers. Sir Thomas Lombe, a wealthy silk merchant of Norwich and London, made considerable additions to Cotchett's mill in 1717, which established the pattern of textile factories. The transformation within and around Derbyshire that this heralded was unique, not only for its radical repercussions for textile production and business, but in a wider sense that was to alter the course of modern society.

Later inventions, such as the `Flying Shuttle' by John Kaye of Bury in 1733, further promoted the textile industry to new heights. The demand for yarn became so greatly increased that it became impossible to meet it merely by hand labour. A machine for carding cotton had been introduced into Lancashire in 1760, and, in 1761, the Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufacturies offered a prize of 50 [pounds sterling] for a successful spinning machine. Until 1767, spinning continued to be wholly by the old-fashioned jersey wheel. It was later in this year that James Hargreaves completed and patented the `Spinning Jenny'. The jenny was, however, applicable only to the spinning of cotton for weft, being unable to give the yarn the degree of strength required in the longitudinal threads, or warp.

At his uncle's insistence, the highly motivated Arkwright received more education than was customary for someone of his class. Eager to improve his lot in life, Arkwright made the most of his opportunities and soon realised that there was a fortune to be made, quite apart from a prize to be won, from designing an efficient spinning machine.

In 1768 Arkwright employed John Kaye, a clockmaker from Warrington, to assist in the construction of wooden models in an attempt to produce a workable machine. Arkwright was not alone in taking up the challenge. Lewis Paul and John Wyatt conducted many experiments between 1736 and 1745 and probably came closest in their attempts to invent a spinning machine, while Thomas Highs, a reedmaker at Leigh, was another who unsuccessfully attempted to design such a machine.

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