A couple of years before Samuel Slater died in 1835, President Andrew Jackson called him the "Father of American Manufactures." Slater pioneered the American textile industry by introducing machinery that revolutionized textile production in the United States. Drawing on his memory of machinery in his birth country, England, Slater reconstructed the complicated spinning machines when he relocated to the United States, thus playing a key role in launching the American Industrial Revolution. His technological contribution and unique management style made him one of the most successful New England entrepreneurs of his era.
Samuel Slater was born in Belper Township in Derbyshire, England, the son of an educated farmer who appreciated his son's mathematical gifts. After an apprenticeship with a mill owner, Slater emigrated to the United States on September 13, 1789 and, two years later, he married Hannah Wilkinson, with whom he had six sons, Samuel Jr., George, John, Horatio, William, and Thomas (two daughters and one son died in infancy). After Hannah's death in 1812, he married Esther Parkinson, a wealthy widow from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The family resided in one of the finest homes in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
The industrialist was admired by many and at least two presidents, James Monroe and Andrew Jackson, visited Slater at his home. Jackson, who saw Slater in 1833, said "I understand you have taught us how to spin." Slater died at the age of 66 on April 20, 1835.
Before the Industrial Revolution came to Great Britain in the mid-eighteenth century, clothmaking was a tedious process requiring hours of hand labor. Wool, flax, or cotton fibers had to be washed, picked clean by hand, carded and combed, drawn out, and twisted into yarn by a spindle or, later, by a spinning wheel. Looms were used to weave the yarn into cloth. Thus only the well-to-do could afford clothing of refined cloth; ordinary people made do with "homespun," a rough fabric akin to burlap.
In 1733 the flying shuttle was invented in England by John Kay, increasing the speed of weaving cloth. By the late eighteenth century, spinning machines invented by Samuel Crompton and James Hargreaves, and Sir Richard Arkwright's water frame further cut down on the time needed for the spinning process. In addition, the spinning jenny came into use in homes, and devices for carding and combing improved textile technology. As a result of these improvements, the textile industry in Britain began to grow rapidly in the latter part of the eighteenth century.
Thus was the era Slater was born into. Following the death of his father, Slater, while a teenager living in England, served as an apprentice under the famous Sir Richard Arkwright, his father's partner and a celebrated inventor. Arkwright had invented the water frame, which was capable of spinning many threads simultaneously. The mill operation fascinated Slater so much so that he spent his holidays at the mill, observing the whirring machinery. Later, he was given the job of supervising machine construction in one of the Strutt mills. Slater arrived on the manufacturing scene in the early days of the U.S. Industrial Revolution as American manufacturers were just beginning to adopt technology from the more advanced British manufacturers.
Slater had revealed his managerial capabilities while in England, as he oversaw mill operation and acted as a go-between from the owner to the workers, as well as constructing and repairing most of the machinery. He even invented a way to evenly wind the yarn on the spindles, receiving a monetary reward from his employer in return. He would later carry these skills with him to the New World.
In 1789, Slater became aware of bounties offered in the United States for skilled workers in the textile trade. This news intrigued Slater, who had grown hungry for new opportunities. He soon booked passage to the United States. Getting out of England was not easy, as the country was protective about skilled workers leaving the country and taking valuable technological secrets with them. This concern resulted in severe restrictions for skilled workers desiring to emigrate. So Slater posed as a farmer and hid his apprenticeship indenture certificate. Details of the mill operation were safely stowed in his mind: he had memorized even the slightest detail of the technology used in Arkwright's mill. Fearing British customs officers, he did not even tell his mother of his intentions. In fact, Slater could be called one of the first industrial spies.
After arriving in Philadelphia, he soon went to New York City, where he worked for a short time with the New York Manufacturing Company. He soon grew disappointed with the company's poor equipment and lack of access to water. He then sought out Moses Brown (for whom Brown University is named), a Quaker manufacturer in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, who was saddled with spinning machinery that just did not work. Brown offered Slater a partnership and all the profits in the Almy and Brown mill if he would agree to fix the machinery. Declaring the machinery useless, Slater worked for a year reconstructing from memory the complex machinery used in Arkwright's mill. He designed and built carding machines, drawing and roving frames, and two spinning frames, modeled on Arkwright's designs. Unfortunately, the textile machinery failed its first test of operation. With the help of Brown's brother Sylvanus, however, the problem was solved, and the machinery began to work perfectly.
In 1790, Slater became partner in the new firm of Almy, Brown, and Slater, the first cotton mill in the United States. In a short time, Almy, Brown, and Slater controlled cotton yarn production in much of New England. Soon many other mills were founded, mostly near the rivers of New England. Slater and his partners opened another mill in Pawtucket, which still exists as the Old Slater Mill, today a historic site. The Pawtucket mill relied on child labor—not an unusual practice for that time—to produce its textiles. Slater was not a negligent employer, however, providing a Sunday school, good food, and kind treatment for the children. Slater also was known for helping many immigrant mill workers who flocked to the United States from England in the early nineteenth century.
In its day, the Old Slater Mill was a phenomenal monument to American ingenuity. Oziel Wilkinson, Slater's father-in-law, was a co-investor with Moses Brown in the mill, which Slater superintended. The early technology of the placement of the dam, the millpond, the flume (a narrow channel for carrying water), the water wheel, the tailrace (the lower part of the current driving the mill wheel), and the mill itself was crucial to the success of the operation. Almy, Brown, and Slater chose to ignore the water rights of any other users, building a dam on the Blackstone River. The mill itself was two-and-a-half stories, constructed wholly of wood taken from New England forests, with masonry outside walls. The mill had a bell tower with a 60-pound bell which called employees to work before dawn.
The location of the New England mills was not accidental. The configuration of most New England rivers, sloping from the source to the mouth, was favorable to creating water-power sites. Rivers also provided easy access to seaports and the clearness of New England rivers was conducive to bleaching spun yarn. Moreover, New England farmers residing on rocky hillsides were looking for ways to supplement their meager incomes when the mills began appearing.
In 1798, Slater left his partners and, along with Oziel Wilkinson and others, formed Samuel Slater & Company and independently established other mills in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. One of these, known as the White Mill because of its white walls, showcased Slater's skills. A Slater biographer quoted in a national newspaper in 1801 described the mill's ability to make various kinds of yarn for "warp, filling, two-and-three-thread stocking yarn, suitable for weaving and knitting, whitened or brown, wholesale or retail, at a short notice . . . equal, if not superior, to any manufactured in America."
Slater's father-in-law became a partner in Samuel Slater, and Company, and his wife, Hannah, received a patent for her development of the first cotton sewing thread. This "cotton yarn," as it was called, became the mainstay of the company. In time, cotton yarn would be in high demand in both farming areas and cities.
Because of the difficulty of persuading farmers' sons and daughters to move to cities to work, Slater decided that expansion into the countryside would better serve his purposes. He assigned his brother John the task of finding a site and developing a new mill in the wilderness along the Blackstone River in Rhode Island, upriver from Pawtucket. As construction started, John was made partner in the company and also became superintendent of the new mill. Soon a village grew up around the mill and was eventually incorporated as Slatersville in 1806.
At the time of his first wife's death in 1812, Slater was already developing a new mill at Oxford South Gore, Massachusetts. This mill was created largely because of the increased demand for textiles during the War of 1812, when British textiles were embargoed.
The period following the war was a difficult time for the textile industry, but a new protective tariff act and the introduction of the power loom helped to restore the industry to its former glory. Slater shared with the famous Francis Cabot Lowell, founder of Lowell, Massachusetts, the credit for profitable decades in the textile mills in the mid-nineteenth century.
Chronology: Samuel Slater
1784: Apprenticed to Jedediah Strutt.
1789: Emigrated to America.
1790: Became partner in Almy and Brown's mills in Providence, Rhode Island.
1790: Almy, Brown, and Slater became first spinning mill in America.
1791: Married Hannah Wilkinson.
1793: Established second mill at Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
1798: Began Samuel Slater & Company.
1817: Married Esther Parkinson.
1831: Employed largest number of mill workers in the United States.
1833: President Andrew Jackson called him the "Father of American Manufactures."
In all, Slater participated in, or founded 13 textile mills. In the late 1820s, he brought his sons George, John, and Horatio into the business, establishing Slater & Sons. Despite setbacks during the depressions of 1815 and 1829, Slater became one of the country's most successful businessmen. He was known for being a paternalistic but fair employer who attracted many skilled English immigrants to his factories. He also helped many young, aspiring businessmen in their manufacturing efforts. By the time of his death in 1835, Slater's estate was worth over $1 million.
Social and Economic Impact
Slater was very important to the development of the American spinning mill business, and influenced the development of American manufacturing. He astutely understood the mounting needs for textiles in an expanding new country, successfully transferred technology from the British system, and, by his initiative and technical facility, transformed mill manufacturing from a cottage industry to a major force in the American economy. He is also often cited as a pioneer of the division-oflabor system that changed American manufacturing.
At the time Slater arrived in America, the new nation was just beginning to assert its economic independence from Great Britain. Prior to this time, most manufactured goods, including cloth, were imported from Britain; and the textile industry in the American colonies was virtually nonexistent. Great Britain, even after the American colonies won its independence, tried to keep its monopoly on cheap, quality cloth by prohibiting the export of machinery or technology. Manufacturing secrets from Britain were hard to come by, and few in the new United States had any familiarity with the techniques of textile mass production.
Slater's success in the United States diminished the dominance of the British cotton trade. By the end of Slater's life, thousands of people were employed in the New England textile industries which he helped initiate. Slater himself probably employed more workers than any other manufacturer of his time.
Sources of Information
Benes, James J. "An Industry Evolves: Lathes to Computers." American Machinist, August 1996.
Cameron, E.H. Samuel Slater: Father of American Manufactures. E.H. Cameron, 1960.
Conrad, James L., Jr. "'Drive That Branch': Samuel Slater, the Power Loom, and the Writing of America's Textile History." Technology and Culture, January 1995.
Gordon, John Steele. "Technology Transfer." American Heritage, February 1990.
Gustaitis, J. "Samuel Slater: Father of the American Industrial Revolution." American History Illustrated, May 1989.
"Samuel Slater." DISCovering Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.
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