English Inventor and Machinist
John Kay was an English machinist and inventor who patented the flying shuttle, a device that helped take an important step towards automatic weaving. When the flying shuttle was invented in 1733, it helped to increase the speed of the weaving operation and its use required the development of more rapid spinning of yarns to feed the faster looms. Unfortunately, Kay did not reap the benefits of his invention and died in utter obscurity. In fact, so little is known about his later life, that historians cannot give a precise date of death. It is believed that he passed away in France sometime in 1764.
The early life of John Kay is also shrouded in obscurity. What little is known about his childhood places his birth in 1704 in Lancashire, England. He was the twelfth child of a farmer and woolen manufacturer. He was put in charge of his father's mill when he was still a youth. Kay made many improvements to the mill. This was especially true in the area of machinery and he even patented a machine for twisting and cording mohair and worsted wool to help the manufacturing process. However, his most important invention, the flying shuttle, would be patented in 1733.
Handloom weaving had been a slow, awkward process for centuries. The shuttle, which carried thread, was passed back and forth between cross threads by hand. Large fabrics required two weavers who were seated side-by-side to pass the shuttle back and forth between them. This made the manufacture of large fabrics especially expensive and cumbersome. Kay thought he could improve on this process. On May 26, 1733, he received a patent for a "New Engine or Machine for Opening and Dressing Wool" that incorporated his flying shuttle. The flying shuttle was mounted on wheels in a track and paddles were used to bat the shuttle from side to side when the weaver pulled a cord. Using the flying shuttle, one weaver could weave any width fabrics at a much greater speed than was previously known.
Some manufacturers used the flying shuttle, but they did not want to pay royalties on the invention. They in fact formed a union, which refused to pay any money to Kay. Because he was entitled to the money, Kay took these manufacturers to court, but the costs nearly ruined him and his business. Even worse, textile workers who feared that the new technology would make them obsolete ransacked Kay's house in 1753. These workers were concerned about their jobs and blamed Kay for their predicament. These events had a tremendous effect on Kay and he left England for France. There is no record of his life in France after the move and he was believed to have lived a meager existence before he died.
While Kay did not benefit from his invention, many people did. Besides the increased speed of weaving, the flying shuttle had other areas of impact as well. First, in order to meet the increased demands for yarn caused by the use of the flying shuttle, it was necessary to invent various spinning machines to increase yarn production. Second, it was a needed step in the development of power looms, where fabrics could be weaved without human manipulation. This greatly increased the speed of the weaving process and helped to keep costs extremely low.
JAMES J. HOFFMANN