Sir Richard Arkwright

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Sir Richard Arkwright

1732-1792

English Inventor

Sir Richard Arkwright was an English inventor and cotton manufacturer during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. He developed a mechanical machine for spinning cotton, a process that was up to this time done in small homes and farms. He also developed an early model for the factory system based on division of labor and a management system.

The youngest of 13 children, Richard Arkwright was born in Preston, England, on December 23, 1732. His parents were very poor and could not afford to send him to school. Instead, he was tutored by a cousin to read and write. After learning the basics, he was apprenticed to a barber and by 1750 was practicing his trade of wig-making. He acquired a secret method for dying hair and traveled about England purchasing human hair for the manufacture of wigs. These travels brought him into contact with people who were interested in designing and using machines for spinning and weaving. When the fashion for wearing wigs fell out of favor, he became interested in designing mechanical inventions to increase the speed of spinning the cotton thread used in making cloth textiles.

The industry most associated with the Industrial Revolution was the textile industry. Prior to the mid-1750s, the spinning of yarns and the weaving of cloth occurred primarily in the home, with most of the work done by people working alone or in conjunction with family members. However, in Great Britain during the late 1700s, many specialized machines powered by water or steam appeared that eventually replaced the cottage system of textile production. With the aid of these machines, a single spinner or weaver now could turn out many times the volume of yarn or cloth that earlier workers had produced.

By 1767 a machine for carding cotton had been introduced into England, and James Hargreaves (1720?-1778) had invented the spinning jenny. These machines, however, required considerable labor as well as producing an inferior quality of cotton thread. This led Arkwright and colleagues John Kay (1704-1764) and Thomas Highs to design and develop a machine called the spinning frame or water frame. Arkwright's machine involved three sets of paired rollers that turned at different speeds and thereby applied the correct amount of tension to produce the thread. The rollers were able to produce a thread of the correct thickness, and the spindles twisted the fibers firmly together. Although the frame produced a coarse, hard thread, its strength was well suited as a warp thread.

As this first machine was put to use, the local hand-spinning weavers, concerned for their livelihood, forced Arkwright to relocate to another town. After moving the factory there, he went into partnership with Jedediah Strutt (1726-1797), the inventor of the stocking frame. The early frames were too large to be operated by people-power, and after a brief attempt to use horsepower, they began to experiment with the use of a water wheel. By 1771 Arkwright's invention became known as a water-frame. By 1790 his factories used the steam engine to pump water to the millrace of a waterwheel. Within a few years he was operating numerous factories equipped with machinery for carrying out all phases of textile manufacturing from carding to spinning.

These new machines required many workers to operate them. In one town of Cromford, he built a large number of cottages close to the factory. He imported workers from the neighboring countryside, preferring weavers with large families. While the women and children worked in the spinning-factory, the weavers worked at home turning the yarn into cloth. The factory employees worked from six in the morning to seven at night. Children, some as young as six, made up two-thirds of the 1,900-person work force.

Arkwright maintained his dominant position in the textile industry despite the loss of his comprehensive patent in 1785. Even though others copied his machinery, he was knighted by King George III in 1786 and accumulated a large fortune by the time of his death on August 3, 1792.

LESLIE HUTCHINSON

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Sir Richard Arkwright

The English inventor and industrialist Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) developed several inventions which mechanized the making of yarn and thread for the textile industry. He also helped to create the factory system of manufacture.

Richard Arkwright was born on Dec. 23, 1732, in Preston, Lancashire, England. Little is known of his early life except that he was from a large family of humble origin and obtained only the rudiments of an education. He was apprenticed to a barber in Preston, and when about 18 he set up on his own in Bolton, a textile town in Lancashire.

Sometime in the 1760s Arkwright began working on a mechanical device for spinning cotton thread, the spinning frame, which he patented in 1769. Problems still remained: the raw cotton had to be prepared for the invention by a hand process, and the invention had to be made practical and commercially successful. For this he needed funds and a mill where he could install the frame.

Probably for this reason in 1771 he moved to Nottingham, where a highly specialized kind of weaving, that of stockings, had already been fairly well mechanized. There Arkwright, whose inventions had reduced him to poverty, found a partner who supported his work and backed the construction of a mill run by waterpower (hence the later name of water frame).

Arkwright found that he could successfully use his thread for stockings and also as the warp, or longitudinal threads, in an ordinary loom onto which the weft, or cross threads, were woven. Heretofore, cotton thread had been used for the weft, but only linen threads had been strong enough for the warp. Now a textile made solely of cotton could be produced in England, and it eventually became one of the country's chief exports.

The production of thread was further improved in 1775 by Arkwright's patenting a practically continuous method which prepared the raw cotton for spinning. Apart from a completely mechanical loom, Arkwright had thus eliminated all the major obstacles to producing cotton cloth by machine.

Because thread production was now completely mechanized, all the hitherto separate operations could be coordinated and carried out under one roof, in a mill, or, as it was increasingly called, a factory. Arkwright paid as careful attention to the mill's operation as he did to his inventions. It was typical of his aggressive entrepreneurship that he was one of the first to apply the steam engine to his mills. While such a concentration of machines, driven by a prime mover, was not a new invention, Arkwright's rationalization of the factory system was nevertheless to become one of the most characteristic features of the industrial revolution.

Wealth and honors, including the bestowal of knighthood, came to him in the 1780s. He died in Nottingham on Aug. 3, 1792.

Further Reading

Two works have been written on Arkwright's relations with associates: George Unwin, Samuel Oldknow and the Arkwrights (1924), and R. S. Fitton and A. P. Wadsworth, The Strutts and the Arkwrights, 1758-1830 (1958). Supplementary accounts of Arkwright's work may be found in T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution: 1760-1830 (1948; rev. ed. 1964), and in Abbott Payson Usher's "The Textile Industry, 1750-1830," in Melvin Kranzberg and Carroll W. Pursell, Jr., eds., Technology in Western Civilization, vol. 1 (1967).

Additional Sources

Fitton, R. S., The Arkwrights: spinners of fortune, Manchester, UK; New York: Manchester University Press; New York, NY, USA: Distributed exclusively in the USA and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1989. □

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Arkwright, Sir Richard (1732–92). Born in Preston, one of thirteen children, Arkwright was apprenticed to a barber, and established a business in Bolton. Travelling around northern textile districts to buy hair for wig-making, Arkwright met craftsmen attempting to improve cotton production and lured John Kay away from his employer in the 1760s; together they produced the water frame, a roller-spinning machine which Arkwright patented (1769). This, powered by water or a horse capstan, was the basis of Arkwright's fortune. His first horse-driven factory was established at Nottingham (1769) to supply Midland hosiers in partnership with Samuel Need and Jedediah Strutt of Derby. In 1771 he moved to Cromford (Derbys.) and was dominant in the early cotton industry. Lancashire cottonmasters successfully attacked his patent (1781 and 1785), but Arkwright deserves the title of ‘father of the factory system’ because of his organization of production. Knighted (1786), he became high sheriff of Derbyshire in 1787.

John Butt

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Sir Richard Arkwright, 1732–92, English inventor. His construction of a machine for spinning, the water frame, patented in 1769, was an early step in the Industrial Revolution. His machines and his gift for organization enabled him and his partner, Jedediah Strutt, to establish huge cotton mills and thus helped to start the factory system. He became very wealthy and was knighted in 1786.

See R. S. Fitton and A. P. Wadsworth, The Strutts and the Arkwrights, 1758–1830 (1958, repr. 1968); The Arkwright Society, Arkwright and the Mills at Cromford (1971).

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Arkwright, Sir Richard (1732–92) British inventor and industrialist. He introduced powered machinery to the textile industry with his water-driven frame for spinning; he started work on the machine in 1764 and patented his invention in 1769. He opened textile factories in Nottingham.