Inventor and entrepreneur
Poor Beginnings. Richard Arkwright was born into a poor family and was reportedly the youngest of thirteen children. Unlike most boys of his economic circumstances, he learned to read, being taught by one of his uncles. He was apprenticed as a barber and worked for years making and selling wigs. When the market for wigs declined in the 1760s, he found himself looking for a new source of income. Textile merchants had been trying to invent a practical spinning machine since the early 1700s. James Hargreaves had recently invented the spinning jenny with which a spinner could produce fine (and delicate) yarn much more quickly. Arkwright’s idea was quite different. Using an idea similar to a machine invented by Lewis Paul and John Wyatt in the 1730s, Arkwright imagined a machine that would use rollers to draw out and twist raw cotton into yarn. He enlisted the aid of two friends to help him make the necessary parts, rented a secluded cottage, and constructed what he called the spinning frame in 1767. The extent to which this invention was new and to which Arkwright, rather than his friends, was responsible for it was argued at the time and has been debated by historians ever since. What is not debatable is the success of Arkwright’s machine. The spinning frame made strong cotton fibers that could be used for warp threads. Combined with yarn from the spinning jenny, it made 100 percent cotton fabric possible for the first time in Europe.
Entrepreneur. Arkwright now turned to building spinning mills. His first mill used horses walking on a treadmill to turn the rollers of his machine, but horses were expensive (they had to be fed); so he turned to water power. His invention henceforth came to be called the water frame. Later, when the rollers were turned by steam power, the machine was renamed the throstle. By 1775 Arkwright had combined all of the steps in the production of yarn (carding, drawing, spinning rovings, and spinning yarn) under one roof. Arkwright’s path to entrepreneurial success was not smooth, however. His desire for privacy while he built his first machine was almost his undoing. Suspicious neighbors were alarmed by the coming and going of so many men and by a strange humming sound coming from his cottage. Some were convinced that the men were practicing witchcraft and that the humming noise was the devil tuning his bagpipes. (The humming presumably came from the turning rollers.) Other mill owners and inventors challenged his patents; cottage workers who saw their livelihood threatened by machines destroyed one of his mills; and his workers resisted working at the steady pace of the spinning machines. He had a talent for entrepreneurship, however, and his factories made him one of the richest men in England. In 1786 he was knighted by George III, making him Sir Richard Arkwright.
W. English, The Textile Industry: An Account of the Early Inventions of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting Machines (London: Longman, 1969).
Karen Fisk, “Richard Arkwright: Cotton King or Spin Doctor?”History Today, 48 (March 1998): 25–30.
Eric Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England (Manchester, U.K.& Dover, N.H.: Manchester University Press, 1985).