The tale of Samuel Crompton is one of those unpleasant stories of an unschooled inventor who fails to protect the rights to his creation, and therefore dies in poverty. In Crompton's case, the invention was the spinning mule, which combined aspects of earlier devices to create a machine that would spin strong, smooth yarn efficiently. The spinning mule remained in use throughout the industrialized world for nearly two centuries, but because he never secured a proper patent for it, Crompton's benefits from his invention were modest.
Crompton was born in Hall-in-the-Wood, a village near Bolton, England, in 1753. His father died when he was five, and this forced his mother to take care of the family. Among her many tasks was her work with a spinning jenny, a then-recent invention of Englishman James Hargreaves (?-1778) for spinning yarn. But there was a problem with the jenny: yarn tended to break, and Crompton's mother—already pressed to her limits—would become increasingly angry with each breakage, which required her to restring the yarn. In his early adulthood, Crompton set out to build a spinning machine that would improve on the jenny.
Over the course of five years, young Crompton sunk all his money—he worked as a fiddler at a local theatre—and all his spare time into his invention. Finally in 1779, at the age of 27, he completed his spinning mule, so named because like a mule, it was a hybrid. The mule borrowed from the spinning jenny the idea of a moving carriage that gently stretched the yarn, and from the water frame, developed by Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), it adapted the use of rollers to draw out the cotton fibers. However, unique to the spinning mule was a spindle carriage developed by Crompton. The carriage prevented tension from being applied to yarn before it had been completely spun, and thus the yarn produced by the spinning mule was strong, smooth and of the highest quality.
From the beginning, Crompton seemed not to understand how to make the most of his invention. At first his family simply sold their yarn at the local market, making a handy profit due to the fact that their product was better than any competitor's. But this only raised curiosity as to the invention behind it all, and eventually Crompton became the target of a campaign from all sides, as the textile industry pressured him to reveal his secret. He did not have the money to purchase a patent, so finally he agreed to sell the design to companies for a subscription of 70 pounds a year; but once the companies had the design for the spinning mule, they managed to wriggle out of the agreement.
For the first decade after he invented the machine, Crompton realized almost no proceeds at all from it. He was eventually able to shame enough companies into paying him a nominal fee that he collected 400 pounds—nothing compared to the untold fortunes the British textile industry had made on the machine, which had by then replaced both the spinning jenny and the water frame. In 1812 the House of Commons arranged a grant of 5,000 pounds for Crompton, but the inventor—nearly 60 years old at that point—was so deeply in debt that it mattered little. Twice he tried and failed to establish businesses. Finally, in 1824 a group of Crompton's friends anonymously donated an annuity of 63 pounds. This provided him with just enough to survive for the three years that remained before his death in Bolton in 1827.