William Lee

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William Lee


English Inventor

According to legend, William Lee invented the first knitting machine because the woman he was in love with spent more time knitting than she did with him. Whatever the cause, his 1589 invention would create an economic revolution, and would establish principles of operation still used in modern textile equipment.

Lee was born in about 1550 in the town of Calverton in Nottinghamshire, England. He later became a minister in the town, and though he may indeed have begun his work on the knitting machine out of romantic frustration, the actual facts are not known. Perhaps Lee married the preoccupied woman in the end.

The initial machine of Lee's design was made to produce coarse wool for knitting stockings. As was the law in England at that time, he presented it to Queen Elizabeth I for a patent, but she refused it. Not daunted, Lee went back to the drawing table and refined his creation to produce a machine capable of knitting silk. Again he presented it to the queen, and again she denied him his patent.

In fact Elizabeth's refusal had nothing to do with concerns over the quality of the machine, or of the garments it produced. Rather, she was motivated by what would be called protectionism in modern trade parlance—that is, the suppression of free economic competition as a means of preserving jobs. The fact was that England had a strong hand-knitting industry on which many of the queen's subjects depended for their livelihood, and she was not about to endanger the status quo. Therefore Lee did something that, while not particularly patriotic, made plenty of sense from an economic standpoint: he took his idea to England's most hated rival.

In France, Lee found a warm reception from King Henry IV, who arranged for him to set up a factory in the town of Rouen. There Lee began manufacturing stockings, and he prospered for many years under the patronage of Henry. Then in 1610, Henry—who had made peace with the Protestants by signing the Edict of Nantes 12 years earlier—was assassinated by a religious fanatic named Ravaillac. Lee died around this time, though whether his death had anything to do with that of his patron is not known.

Later, Lee's brother, who had been working with him in France, returned to England with plans of establishing the knitting industry there. Elizabeth was long gone, but the opposition from hand-knitters was as strong as ever, and the brother initially faced great challenges. In time, however, Lee's methods took over the market, helping to spawn a revolution in industry that would transform England's economy.


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William Lee

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