Samuel Slater Builds the First Factory

views updated May 29 2018


As a young British immigrant, Samuel Slater took credit for building the United States' first successful water-powered cotton mill in 1790. By producing replicas of innovative cotton-spinning machinery recently developed by the English, Slater was able to create a fully operational facility in Rhode Island. The construction of his factory represented a tremendous step forward for industry in the United States, which had been struggling to catch up to Great Britain in technological advancement. Slater became a textile entrepreneur whose style of factory construction and workforce management set the pattern for industrial development throughout New England. His contribution was so significant that President Andrew Jackson (18291837) once dubbed him the Father of American Manufacturers.

Prior to the Revolutionary War (17751783), England imposed many restrictions upon the colonial economy. Intent on maintaining an agrarian rather than an industrial economy in these regions, British legislators passed a series of acts to curb the development of industry in America. The first of these laws was enacted in 1719 and forbade the practice of metalworking. A 1750 law was more restrictive, explicitly prohibiting the use of a mill "or other engine for slitting or rolling iron, or any plating forge to work with a tilt hammer, or any furnace for making steel." Before the enactment of this law some of this forbidden machinery had already been operational in the northern colonies.

Restrictions such as these, which expressed the common understanding of the subordinate role of the colonies in the mercantilist system , made up part of the complex set of motivations and complaints that eventually led to the separation of the colonies from England. Although the United States ultimately gained its independence, the British continued to hamper the new nation's industrial development by limiting the export of mechanical equipment. In response, the U.S. imposed protective tariffs on metalwork such as rolled iron, castings, and spikes, hoping to encourage a domestic capacity in these areas.

The American Revolutionary War, the Embargo of 1807 (18071809), and, later, the War of 1812 (18121814), all of which involved blockades of American ports, impressed the U.S. political leadership with the necessity of fostering a domestic metalworking culture. For this reason, the United States Congress enacted patent law to provide incentive for industrial innovation although the patent process before 1836 was very lax and granted patents to "inventors" who were actually promoters. The same need to foster a metal-working culture led the new nation to found federal arsenals. The most famous one was in Spring-field, Massachusetts, where in the last years of the eighteenth century inventors like Eli Whitney and Samuel Colt advanced and popularized the idea of standardizing machine parts. The United States endeavored to attain a degree of self-sufficiency in manufacturing and to move forward into industrial development, but it lacked both the workforce and the elements of technological know-how necessary to sustain industrial advancement. It continued to lag behind Western Europe, which had taken its first steps toward an industrial economy in the early eighteenth century.

This is what made Samuel Slater's 1789 arrival in New England so momentous. Slater brought with him from England a mental blueprint of the state-of-the-art machinery used for cotton spinning. British law sought to prevent the leakage of trade secrets, so Slater did not dare to carry written instructions or drawings on his passage overseas. Instead, he kept all of the information in his head, "smuggling" it into his new homeland.

Because England forbade the emigration of its skilled machinists, the 21 year-old Slater passed himself off as a farm laborer. In truth, he had already served as supervisor of machinery in a textile factory after completing an apprenticeship with Jedidiah Strutt, a successful British manufacturer of ribbed stockings. (Strutt's partner was Richard Arkwright, who had built world's first cotton-spinning mill in 1768.) Slater was about as skilled as a machinist could be, and in the United States he was to find fame and fortune in the application of his knowledge. Slater's contribution was not so much as an inventor. He made few if any breakthroughs in creating new machinery. His importance lay rather in the fact that his purloined knowledge of English technology filled in a number of blank spaces in the understanding of mechanical principles among inventors in the United States. It marked the unfolding of a direction and a future for industry in the new nation.

At the time of Slater's arrival, textile production in the United States was very crude. The work was labor-intensive and the result was of poor quality. He took a temporary position at the New York Manufacturing Company, a small textile business that had been struggling to replicate British yarn-spinning technology. But the New York facility lacked the waterpower that was necessary to run the new machinery, and Slater soon looked for opportunities elsewhere. He relocated to Pawtucket, Rhode Island where he joined the textile firm of Almy and Brown, who also aimed to imitate the British water-powered system. Slater offered the Pawtucket firm the expertise that it sought: He became a partner almost immediately and set out to erect the United States' first cotton-spinning mill.

Slater put his memory of the British technology to work, designing and constructing three machines for the carding of wool, several drawing and roving frames, and two spinning frames. Not long after the first mill's completion, Slater embarked on the construction of a larger facility, which was operational in 1793. The waterframe machinery was simple to use and did not require much manpower; in fact, the labor force consisted of 100 children who ranged in age from four to ten. Determined not to replicate the inhumane practices of some British manufacturers, Slater treated his little workers comparatively well and supplied them with good food. He eventually established a Sunday school for them, one of the first such schools in the nation.

Meanwhile Slater's wife Hannah, whom he had met and married in Rhode Island, turned out to be an inventor in her own right: she developed a method for making high-quality cotton sewing thread (previously, all thread had been made of linen). In 1798 Slater and his father-in-law went into partnership to manufacture the thread. Samuel Slater and Company, as their business became known, constructed its own machinery and erected mills near Pawtucket. Later the company expanded, opening mills in Smithfield, Rhode Island (later renamed Slatersville); Webster, Massachusetts; Jewett City, Connecticut; Amoskeag Falls, New Hampshire; and Manchester, New Hampshire. Slater had come a long way from introducing his first, modest-size facility. He had become one of several epicenters of industrial innovation in the United States. And with his good business and management sense he became something of a model for other U.S. manufacturers, who often emulated his practices.

Although Slater did not invent any new textile machinery, the construction of his first mill was often credited with launching the country's industrial revolution. Indeed, many other factories cropped up soon after his facility opened. Rhode Island's Blackwater River region, which surrounds the site of the original Slater mill in Pawtucket, became particularly dense with industry attracting immigrants and providing ample employment opportunities to whole families of mill workers. Around the country manufacturers of all kinds endeavored to construct their own machinery, promoting a trend that Slater had set in motion. The United States' transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy was underway.

See also: Rhode Island System of Labor, Samuel Slater, Textile Industry


Benes, James J. "An Industry Evolves: Lathes to Computers." American Machinist. August 1996.

Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983, s.v. "Slater Family."

Gordon, John Steele. "Technology Transfer." American Heritage, February 1990.

Walton, Perry. The Story of Textiles. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1937.

Zimiles, Martha and Murray. Early American Mills. New York: Branhall House, 1973.

slater's 1789 arrival marked the unfolding of a future for industry in the united states: he brought with him from england a mental blueprint of the state-of-the-art machinery used for cotton spinning.

Slater, Samuel

views updated Jun 27 2018


Samuel Slater (17681835) was an English-born manufacturer who introduced the first water-powered cotton mill to the United States. This invention revolutionized the textile industry and paved the way for the Industrial Revolution.

Samuel Slater was born in Derbyshire, England, on June 9, 1768. His father was a prosperous yeoman farmer who owned a farm near the Derwent River. Along the same river, in the town of Cromford, the first spinning mill driven by waterpower was built in 1771. This mill was owned by Jedediah Strutt and Richard Arkwright, the inventor of a revolutionary water-frame spinner. In 1776 Strutt and Arkwright dissolved their partnership, and Strutt started his own mill in Belper, where Slater lived. At the age of 14 Slater began an apprenticeship at the Strutt mill. Three years later he was promoted to supervisor of machinery and mill construction. In this position Slater learned everything about textile production, including the construction of machines.

In 1789 Slater began looking for other opportunities for advancement in the textile industry. He decided that the industry had reached its peak in England, but remained undeveloped in the United States, which was still largely agricultural and where handicraft methods of production still prevailed. No U.S. inventor had yet been successful in building a spinning machine, and British law prohibited the export of such machines. In an effort to preserve their dominance in industry, Britain also prohibited the emigration of skilled mechanics. In order to leave the country unnoticed Slater had to disguise himself as a farm laborer. He left England without notifying family and friends and only took his indenture with him to prove his familiarity with Strutt's cotton mills.

Slater sailed for 66 days to reach the United States, and upon his arrival he began working for the New York Manufacturing Company. Slater became dissatisfied with the mill, however, because it was poorly equipped and lacked sufficient water supply. Around that same time the owners of a machine-spinning mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, were looking for a mechanic familiar with the English system of production. Moses Brown and William Almy were impressed by Slater's experience and quickly hired him into their company. His primary role was to build a duplicate model of the Arkwright machine, for which he was paid one dollar a day.

Although many Americans had attempted to copy the British machines prior to Slater's arrival, none had been successful. A cotton factory in Beverly, Massachusetts, built by John Cabot and Joshua Fisher, had the distinction of being the first textile mill in the United States. Due to imperfections in their machines, however, the mill produced products of poor quality, and it soon closed. On April 5, 1790, Slater signed an agreement with Almy and Brown to make equipment for the "spinning of cotton by water." Upon signing the agreement, Slater said, ". . . if I do not make as good yarn as they do in England, I will have nothing for my services, but will throw the whole of what I have attempted over the bridge." Despite the limited materials available in New England, Slater accomplished his mission in less than a year. On December 20, 1790, Slater's cotton mill began production with the Arkwright system.

Even though the new mill had Arkwright models it nonetheless experienced some initial problems. In particular there was difficulty securing good-quality raw cotton, and the equipment frequently broke down. Slater was especially disappointed in American cotton, which was poorly cleaned. Fortunately, just three years after Slater's first mill opened, Eli Whitney (17651825) invented the cotton gin, which properly cleaned the cotton in large enough quantities to satisfy Slater. Despite these initial setbacks the business quickly expanded. In 1793 Almy, Brown, and Slater constructed a new mill on the Blackstone River. It was called the Old Slater Mill and consisted of three carders and two spinning frames containing 72 spindles. In the same year Slater's wife, Hannah Wilkinson Slater, invented cotton-sewing thread. Prior to this time, linen thread was used for sewing. Hannah realized that twisting two strands of cotton yarn into one thread created a stronger and smoother thread than the linen. Slater was interested in this new invention, but did not develop machines for producing thread until much later.

Though Almy, Brown, and Slater became a successful company, Slater later disagreed with his partners over the management of the mill. Slater retained his interests in Almy, Brown, and Slater, and in 1798 organized a new firm called Samuel Slater and Company. In 1801 Slater built another mill based on the Arkwright system, this one in Massachusetts. He then helped build other cotton mills in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. By 1828 Slater was involved in 13 partnerships for processing cotton.

Not only did Slater mechanize the textile industry in the United States but he also introduced a new production system. Due to the fact that the family was such an important social institution in New England, Slater incorporated this into the production process. He introduced a family labor system where duties were divided according to age and gender. Men worked as laborers or skilled artisans, women cleaned raw cotton, and children worked in the mill. Slater's production system also featured a partnership or single-proprietorship form of ownership, personal management, small-scale production, and the use of waterpower. This production system is often referred to as the Slater system or Rhode Island system of manufactures.

Slater's system was facilitated by production villages. The families employed by Slater lived in company-owned housing near the mills; they shopped at company stores and went to company schools and churches. One of the first of these mill villages was called Slatersville and was located on the Branch River. By 1807 Slatersville consisted of the Slatersville Mill, two tenement houses for workers, the owner's house, and a company store.

Slater dedicated his entire life to building the textile industry and turned his company into a family business. By the 1830s Slater's health was declining. In 1833 while he was bedridden from rheumatism, President Andrew Jackson (18291937) visited New England to witness the growing textile industry. Upon meeting Slater, President Jackson named him the "Father of American Manufactures." Two years later, on April 20, 1835 Samuel Slater died in the mill village of Webster, Massachusetts.

See also: Cotton, Rhode Island System of Labor, Samuel Slater Builds First Factory, Textile Industry


Cameron, Edward Hugh. Samuel Slater, Father of American Manufactures. Freeport, ME: B. Wheel-wright Co., 1960.

Gordon, John Steele. "Technology Transfer." American Heritage, February 1990.

Karwatka, Dennis. Technology's Past: America's Industrial Revolution and the People Who Delivered the Goods. Ann Arbor, MI: Prakken Publications, Inc., 1996.

Simonds, Christopher. Samuel Slater's Mill and the Industrial Revolution. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1990.

Tucker, Barbara M. Samuel Slater and the Origins of the American Textile Industry, 17901860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

[i]f i do not make as good yarn as they do in england, i will have nothing for my services, but will throw the whole of what i have attempted over the bridge.

samuel slater, 1790

Samuel Slater

views updated May 29 2018

Samuel Slater

The English-born American manufacturer Samuel Slater (1768-1835) built the first successful cotton mill in the United States, in 1790.

Samuel Slater was born near Belper in Derbyshire on June 9, 1768, the son of a prosperous yeoman farmer. As a youth, Samuel demonstrated considerable skill as a mechanic, and in school he excelled in arithmetic.

Apprenticeship in the Textile Trade

The Slater farm was located near the river Derwent; the first spinning mill driven by water power was built in Cromford on the Derwent in 1771 by Jedediah Strutt and Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the water-frame spinner. In 1776 they dissolved their partnership, and Strutt took over his own mill in Belper, where Slater began his apprenticeship at the age of 14.

Although the terms of the indenture were harsh and Slater had to work hard, Strutt treated him kindly. Slater learned to operate all the machinery involved in converting raw cotton into yarn. When the machinery broke down—a frequent occurrence since the spinning industry was still in its infancy—he made the necessary repairs.

At the end of his apprenticeship Slater concluded that the best opportunities for advancement in the textile industry were in the United States. Handicraft methods still prevailed there, since no American had yet been successful in constructing a spinning machine, and British law prohibited the export of such machines. In 1789 Slater made his way to London, where he negotiated his passage to America. He told neither his family nor his friends of his plans. According to legend, he sailed from London disguised as a farm laborer, since British law also prohibited the emigration of skilled mechanics.

New Skill to the New World

Within a few days of his arrival in New York City, Slater found a position with the New York Manufacturing Company. He was disappointed, however, because the mill was poorly equipped and lacked access to enough water to provide the necessary power for operating spinning machines. He learned that the firm of Almy and Brown operated a machine spinning mill in Pawtucket, R.I., and wrote to Moses Brown, who had provided most of the capital for building the mill, requesting a job. Slater was hired immediately.

Slater soon became a partner in the firm. His principal responsibility was to design and construct duplicate models of the equipment used in British milling establishments. Brown again supplied the capital. With the aid of a local woodworker, an iron manufacturer, and a general helper, Slater constructed the first practical copies of Arkwright's carders, water-frame spinners, and looms in the United States. The new mill went into operation in December 1790. Slater hired children from the town and surrounding area and trained them to operate the machinery. This was a common practice in both the United States and England. The raw cotton was sent out to local women for cleaning before it came to the mill for carding.

Soon after the mill went into operation, Slater married Hannah Wilkinson. It is said that she was the first woman in the United States to suggest making sewing thread out of cotton. After her death, he married Esther Parkinson, a wealthy Philadelphia widow.

Building the Textile Industry

The mill did not run smoothly at first. There were problems in securing good-quality raw cotton, and often the equipment broke down. More importantly, the shop was unable to produce cotton yarn in sufficient quantities to meet the demand. In 1793 the firm of Almy, Brown, and Slater decided to expand. Picking a site on the Blackstone River, they constructed a new dam to provide the power and built a large mill. They installed three carders and two spinning frames containing 72 spindles. The mill, called the Old Slater Mill, went into operation in July 1793.

Dissension within the partnership over management of the mill convinced Slater to build his own mill. Still maintaining his interests in Almy, Brown, and Slater, he organized a new firm, Samuel Slater and Company, in 1798. His mill, completed in 1801, was the first in Massachusetts to use the Arkwright system. Slater played an active part in establishing other cotton mills in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. By 1828 he had been involved in 13 different partnerships concerned with processing cotton. Because of his contributions to the cotton industry in the United States, he is often referred to as the father of American manufactures.

Further Reading

The most readable, though somewhat subjective, biography of Slater is Edward H. Cameron, Samuel Slater; The Father of American Manufactures (1960). George S. White, Memoir of Samuel Slater: The Father of American Manufactures (1836; repr. 1967), is a sympathetic contemporary account of Slater's life; it contains numerous primary documents related to early American manufacturing. See also William R. Bagnall, Samuel Slater and Early Development of Cotton (1890), and, for broad background, Perry Walton, The Story of Textiles (1912). □

Samuel Slater

views updated May 29 2018

Samuel Slater


English-American engineer known as the "father of the American Industrial Revolution." Slater emigrated to America, bringing with him knowledge of the workings of England's most advanced textile machinery. Although the law forbade people with this knowledge from leaving England, he did so under an assumed name. Slater set up a mill in Rhode Island that became the basis for the American textile industry and helped launch the industrialization of the United States.

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