Edmund Cartwright was the inventor of a mechanical weaving loom that could be operated by horses, a waterwheel, or a steam engine. By 1791 this machine could be operated by an unskilled person (usually a child), who could weave three and half times the amount of material on a power loom in the time a skilled weaver using traditional methods could. This invention revolutionized the emerging textile industry in England.
The son of a wealthy landowner, Cartwright was born in Nottingham, England, in 1743. Because his family was rich, he was able to attend prestigious schools, eventually graduating from University College, Oxford. After completing his schooling he became rector of the church at Goadby Marwood in Leicestershire. Although he was employed in a profession he enjoyed, Cartwright had an interest in the inventions happening in the emerging textile industry.
In 1784 Cartwright visited a factory owned by Richard Arkwright (1732-1792). Arkwright had designed and built machinery capable of spinning yarn and thread, but the weaving was still done by independent household weavers. Cartwright, inspired by Arkwright's invention, began working on a powered weaving machine that would improve the speed and quantity of the actual weaving of cloth. Cartwright's first loom was clumsy and ineffective—primarily because he was unfamiliar with the construction and operation of the handlooms. In spite of the fact that the original machine worked poorly, he took out a patent. After employing a local blacksmith and carpenter as consultants, he built two more prototypes and by 1790 had completed a loom capable of weaving wide widths of cloth with complicated patterns. All operations that could be done by the weaver's hands and feet could now be performed mechanically.
Cartwright had established a factory for his looms in 1786. Prior to this, the newly established factories manufactured only thread and yarn. Handloom weavers had been guaranteed a constant supply of thread, jobs, and high wages. The implementation of the power loom worried the local weavers who feared (correctly) that the machines would replace their services. During 1791 his factory was burned to the ground, possibly by a group of local unemployed weavers. (In 1799 a Manchester, England, company purchased 400 of Cartwright's power looms, but soon afterwards their factory was burnt down by another group of unhappy local weavers.)
The once-prosperous hand weavers eventually had great difficulty finding employment, and those who did were forced to accept far fewer wages than they had in the past. In 1807 nearly 130,000 individuals signed a petition in favor of a minimum wage in the factories. The local authorities replied by sending in the military; one weaver was killed and others seriously injured.
After the catastrophic fire and worker unrest, Cartwright found himself in financial difficulties, as many other business owners would not buy machinery from Cartwright. He attempted to offset these problems by inventing an ingenious wool-combing machine; however, local skilled workers opposed this also. Eventually he went bankrupt and was forced to sell his patents and factories. By the early 1800s, however, a large number of factory owners were using a modified version of Cartwright's power loom. Cartwright, having lost his patent, petitioned the House of Commons for compensation for others using his design. His claim was supported, and in 1809 he was awarded 10,000 pounds. He retired to a farm, where he applied his inventive abilities towards improving machinery used in agriculture. He invented a reaper and wrote pamphlets and essays on animal husbandry as well as using manure as fertilizer. He continued to develop new agricultural inventions until his death in 1823.