Power Loom Invented

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Power Loom Invented

United States 1814


The textile industry in the United States entered a new era in 1814 when Francis Cabot Lowell created the first successful American power loom in Waltham, Massachusetts. Lowell copied successful designs of power looms that had been in use in England and invented an improved version of the power loom and other related devices for use in the United States. These inventions revolutionized the organization of all the technical processes by which cloth was made. For the first time mass production of finished textile products became possible.

Lowell and his brother-in-law, Patrick Tracy Jackson, incorporated their business in 1814 with one brick structure, six stories tall. They added a second mill in 1818 and a third one in 1820. First using water to power his machines, Lowell located his factory on the Charles River at Waltham. It was the first successful power-driven textile mill in the world. It was here that the entire process of transforming raw cotton into cloth was gathered within the same building for the first time. Lowell used the new power loom, along with effective mill organization and mass production, to make textile manufacturing a successful operation in the United States.


  • 1789: George Washington sworn in as first U.S. president in New York City.
  • 1793: Eli Whitney patents his cotton gin—a machine that, by making cotton profitable, spurs the expansion of slave labor in the southern United States.
  • 1796: British engineer and inventor Joseph Bramah develops the first practical hydraulic press, a machine that will have numerous industrial applications
  • 1800: Italian physicist Alessandro Volta develops the voltaic cell, an early form of battery.
  • 1810: German art publisher Rudolph Ackerman invents the differential gear, which enables wheeled vehicles to make sharp turns.
  • 1812: The War of 1812, sparked by U.S. reactions to oppressive British maritime practices undertaken in the wake of the wars against Napoleon, begins in June.
  • 1814: British engineer George Stephenson builds the first practical steam locomotive.
  • 1814: War of 1812 ends with the Treaty of Ghent in December—before General Andrew Jackson, unaware of the treaty, leads American troops to victory in the Battle of New Orleans.
  • 1820: In the Missouri Compromise, Missouri is admitted to the Union as a slave state, but slavery is prohibited in all portions of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36°30' N.
  • 1825: Opening of the New York Stock Exchange.
  • 1834: American inventor Cyrus H. McCormick patents his reaper, a horse-drawn machine for harvesting wheat.
  • 1839: Invention of the bicycle in Scotland.

Event and Its Context

People are known to have weaved as far back as the eighth millennium B.C., during what historians call the Neolithic Period of the Stone Age. By the time of the ancient Egyptians (over 6,000 years ago), the making of cloth was established as a regular activity to provide clothing and other materials. During the Middle Ages (from about A.D. 400 to 1400) people wove cloth in homes on hand looms, hand-powered machines that interweave yarns or other fibers into fabrics.

Mechanization Advances

During the early eighteenth century with the use of looms in factories, an industrial revolution spread across England. People began to work in factories rather than from homes. Eventually, factories replaced the domestic or "cottage" system and became the standard method of cloth production in industrial countries. Due to the size of the looms, children, some as young as nine years old, were often better suited to performing some of the operations. The use of children along with poor working conditions and extremely long work hours were common during these years. By 1835 the British Factory Act limited working hours and improved conditions within the factories.

The factory system began to develop seriously in the late eighteenth century following a series of inventions that transformed the British textile industry and heralded the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. One of the more important of these inventions was the "flying shuttle" patented in 1733 by British inventor John Kay. It consisted of a lever mechanism that drove the shuttle across the loom along a track. The flying shuttle greatly increased the speed of weaving and permitted "picking" (an operation that opens the fleece) to be performed by one person. In 1745 Jacques de Vaucanson produced a loom in France, which was further developed by his countryman Joseph-Marie Jacquard, on which intricate patterns could be achieved.

In 1764 Englishman James Hargreaves invented the "spinning jenny," which could produce thread from animal and plant fibers. This made available large supplies of yarn and forced the development of faster weaving techniques to keep up with increased demand. In 1769 Sir Richard Arkwright invented the "water frame" for spinning, and in 1779 Samuel Crompton invented the "spinning mule." Such inventions mechanized many of the hand processes involved in weaving and made it possible to produce textiles much more quickly and cheaply. As these new machines became larger and more costly, it became necessary to operate them in factories. Even greater technological advances would soon be possible when power was applied to the loom.

The Power Loom

A power loom is a machine that at least partially mechanizes the weaving of cloth. It is powered by means other than human effort. In a power loom, precise movements that were once coordinated through human hands and eyes were duplicated by intricate interactions of cams, gears, levers, and springs. Because these movements required precision and intense coordination, weaving was the final step to be mechanized in the textile mills.

One of the major technological breakthroughs early in the Industrial Revolution was the invention in 1712 of the first practical steam engine by English inventor Thomas Newcomen. While making improvements to the Newcomen engine, the Scottish engineer and inventor James Watt developed a series of inventions (the first one patented in 1769) that made possible the modern steam engine. When textile factories first became mechanized, only waterpower was available to operate the machinery. The factory owner was forced to locate the manufacturing facility near a water supply, sometimes in an inconvenient or isolated region far away from the labor supply. After 1785, when a steam engine was first installed in a cotton factory, steam began to replace water as the recommended power supply for the new machinery. Manufacturers could then build factories closer to labor supplies and to markets for the textile goods produced.

Edmund Cartwright's Loom

English clergyman Edmund Cartwright invented the first successful power loom in 1785. Although not the first power loom, Cartwright's power loom was the first practical design that could weave wide cloth (such as calico) in a mass manufacturing process. It was similar to a standard loom except that many of the working parts took the place of human hands and feet. Cartwright's development of the power loom allowed operations to be faster and more efficient. It permitted a semi-skilled worker with little experience to produce the same amount of cloth as a professional hand weaver. Using water-power to operate various functions, Cartwright's loom could weave automatically much more quickly than a skilled worker operating a standard loom.

In 1787 Cartwright opened a textile mill in Doncaster, England, and two years later began using steam engines manufactured by James Watt and Matthew Boulton to drive his looms. Improving upon the previous designs of looms, Cartwright's steam-powered machines made the textile manufacturing process much more efficient and popular—and therefore profitable—to factory owners. The earlier method, powered by the water wheel, nearly disappeared as the steam engine became the preferred power supply. The power loom became not only quicker but also more precise. All operations that had been performed previously by the weaver's hands and feet could now be operated mechanically.

Power Loom Improvements

In 1802 English cotton manufacturer William Horrocks of Stockport patented an improved power loom. It featured a better way to wind the woven cloth onto a rear beam on the loom. During the next 20 years further improvements appeared. Early in the nineteenth century a vast number of English factory owners began to use Cartwright's power loom, which had been modified with basic design improvements from Horrocks and other inventors. By 1818 in the areas surrounding Manchester, there were 14 factories with a combined total of 2,000 power looms. Three years later the number of northern English factories had increased to 32 mills and with 5,732 power looms in use. By 1850 over 250,000 cotton power looms were used in Great Britain, of which nearly 177,000 were in Lancashire county.

Looms in the United States

Former British textile apprentice Samuel Slater introduced the Arkwright method of spinning into the United States in 1790 when he started a factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Yet the manufacture of cotton did not grow rapidly because the southern states had not yet found a quick method of removing seeds from cotton fiber.

In 1793 Massachusetts teacher Eli Whitney, who was then living in Georgia, invented a machine that he called the "cotton gin." This new machine could clean at least 300 pounds of cotton each day, a remarkable improvement of the rate of about one pound per day by hand. Whitney's cotton gin solved the problem of mass production and manufacture of cotton. Ten years after the machine had gone into operation, the United States was exporting over 100,000 bags of cotton, or more than 40,000,000 pounds, and enormous increases occurred every year hence. Up to that time, and much later, the cotton yarn spun in U.S. mills was mostly woven into cloth by hand in family homes. The invention of the cotton gin and the power loom led to the rise of the cotton industry as mechanized textile mills sprang up mostly in the northeastern portion of the United States.

Successful power looms were in operation in England by the early 1800s, but those made within the United States were poorly designed for factory production. American industrialist Francis Cabot Lowell of Massachusetts realized that the U.S. needed to develop a practical power loom to manufacture cotton on a large scale. To do so, Lowell borrowed British technology to establish a cotton factory. While touring English textile mills, Lowell memorized the construction and workings of the different types of power looms that he observed. Lowell was determined to build a large cotton factory that could produce cloth similar to that made in the latest English weaving system. Returning home, Lowell recruited master mechanic Paul Moody to help him recreate and develop what he had observed. In 1814 they succeeded in adapting the British design and constructed the first successful power loom operated by waterpower in the United States. Lowell was also the first person in the United States to produce cloth and thread with a power loom in a factory.

What Lowell built in 1814 at Waltham was no less than the first textile mill in the world where all the steps of the industrial process were combined under one roof: the cotton entered the factory as raw fiber (straight from Whitney's cotton gin), was spun into thread, woven into cloth, and exited as finished goods ready to be sold. The technicians at the machine shop that was established at the Waltham mills by Lowell and Moody continued to make improvements to the loom. With the introduction of a dependable power loom, the emerging American textile industry was underway. The power loom revolutionized the organization of all the technical processes by which cloth was made. For the first time mass production of finished goods in the United States became possible. The power loom, along with the combination of all processes under one roof, effective mill organization, and mass production, combined to make textile manufacturing successful and profitable. Lowell's operation greatly reduced the amount of loss from wasted time, labor, and materials, and in the process forever altered the American textile industry.

Soon textile mills sprang up along the rivers of the states in New England and transformed the landscape, the economy, and society in general. Initially, daughters of local farmers performed the textile work. In later years, recently arrived immigrants became the main source of mill employees. Prior to the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), textile manufacturing was the most important American industry. After the death of Lowell in 1817, the great cotton-manufacturing city of Lowell, Massachusetts, was named in his honor.

Key Players

Arkwright, Richard (1732-1792): Arkwright was born in Preston, England. As a young man, Arkwright was a barber's apprentice but had a strong ambition to operate his own company. In 1762 Arkwright started a wig-making business. During this time, Arkwright learned about new machines that were being developed for the textile industry. Arkwright employed John Kay, a clockmaker from Warrington, and other local craftsmen to help him make a "spinning frame" that was able to produce a thread that was far stronger than that made by other devices. In 1769 Arkwright formed a partnership with Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need to build a factory using the spinning frame. In 1771 the three men set up a large factory powered by water from the River Derwent in Cromford, Derbyshire. Arkwright's machine then became known as the "water frame." Arkwright's textile factories were quite profitable. Later, Arkwright made improvements in a "carding" machine and in 1775 took out a patent for a new "carding engine."

Cartwright, Edmund (1743-1823): Cartwright was a British inventor who was born in Nottinghamshire, England, and educated at the University of Oxford. After spending several years as a clergyman, Cartwright invented the first successful power loom in 1785, upon which he subsequently made major improvements. Cartwright took out a patent for a wool-combing machine in 1789 and secured patents for numerous other machines. In 1797 he patented an alcoholpowered steam engine. Cartwright also helped U.S. inventor Robert Fulton with experiments involving a steamboat. Cartwright retired to a farm in Kent, England, and spent the rest of his life inventing improvements for farm machinery.

Crompton, Samuel (1753-1827): Crompton invented a "spinning mule" in 1775. Its unusual name was an indication that it was a hybrid that combined features of two earlier inventions, the "spinning jenny" and the "water frame" (mules are a cross between a horse and a donkey, hence the moniker). The mule produced a soft but strong yarn that could be used in all kinds of textiles, especially muslins. Crompton sold his rights to a Bolton, England, manufacturer. Eventually, a large number of factory owners purchased Crompton's "mules," but because he had sold the rights to his machine, Crompton made no money. Crompton was granted a reward for his invention from the British House of Commons. He used the money to invest in a cotton factory, but the business failed.

Hargreaves, James (1720-1778): Hargreaves was one of many weavers who owned and operated his own spinning wheel and loom while living in the village of Stanhill, England, during the 1760s. Some historians claim that his daughter Jenny accidentally knocked over the family spinning wheel. When the tipped-over spindle continued to revolve, Hargreaves got the idea that a complete line of spindles could be worked off one wheel. In 1764 Hargreaves invented a machine that used eight spindles onto which the thread was spun from one wheel. He named it the "spinning jenny" after his daughter. Hargreaves later moved to Nottingham, England, where he built a small spinning mill.

Kay, John (1704-1764): Kay was a clockmaker from Warrington, England. He also was an inventor who developed a flying shuttle in 1733 for textile manufacture, and an improved combing, or carding, device. Associations of weavers kept Kay from profiting by his inventions, and he died in poverty in France.

Lowell, Francis Cabot (1775-1817): Lowell was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He was a businessman, merchant, and trader from Boston who founded in Waltham, Massachusetts, America's first successful power-driven textile mill. The increasing demands for textile goods prompted the building a series of canals to supply the largest group of water-powered textile mills ever built in a localized area. After Lowell's death, this new industrial area became a city that was named in his honor.

See also: Lowell Industrial Experiment.



Bryant, David. Wheels and Looms: Making Equipment for Spinning and Weaving. London: Batsford, 1987.

Hills, Richard Leslie. Power in the Industrial Revolution.New York: A. M. Kelley, 1970.

Lord, P. R., and M. H. Mohamed. Weaving: Conversion of Yarn to Fabric. Durham, England: Merrow Publishing Company, 1976.

Smelser, Neil J. Social Change in the Industrial Revolution:An Application of Theory to the Lancashire Cotton Industry, 1770-1840. London: Routledge & Paul, 1959.


"The Power Looms." History Wiz. 1999, updated 5 August2002 [cited 13 August 2002]. http://www.historywiz. com/powerloom.htm.

"Textile Industry." Spartacus Educational [cited 13 August2002]. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Textiles. htm.

—William Arthur Atkins