Power Learning Journey
The most important element of the Cotton Industry's development from the 18th century onwards was the mechanisation of processes formerly carried out by hand. With the development of the Water Frame, Mule and Power Loom, the power required to drive ever larger and more complex textile machines became greater than human muscle could easily apply. In the steps that follow, we outline the principal forms of power employed in the cotton industry during the various phases of its development.
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Power Learning Journey Step 3: Water Power
- Richard L. Hills, "Power in the Industrial Revolution" (Manchester University Press, 1970)
The water wheel is a device for utilising the power of flowing or falling water. The three main types of water wheel were the 'overshot' wheel, where water falling from a height struck the wheel from above; the 'undershot' wheel, where water strikes the vanes on the underside of the wheel; and the 'breast wheel' used in cases where the height of the water is less than the height of the wheel, with the water striking the wheel around midway. Early steam engines did not impart so smooth a motion as a waterwheel, even when the pump action had been converted to a rotary motion. This smooth motion was essential to drive early spinning frames, consequently water power remained in use for a long time after steam power became widely available. Unlike the steam engine, the waterwheel required no coal to power it nor was it generally prone to breakdowns and stoppages.
Although water itself is free, rivers had to be dammed, channels had to be cut to transport the water to the wheel, and the wheel itself had to be installed, but subsequent running costs were far lower than steam engines. Large dams and reservoirs were built to hold back the water during the night when the mill was not working so that the water from the river could be supplemented by this additional source of power, especially useful if the river or stream was running low. Disputes between mill owners on the same river were common, particularly where the owner of a mill upstream dammed water and prevented the free flow to mills downstream.
The demand for water power affected the position of the first cotton mills, as these factories had to be sited on a river with a fairly steep fall and constant flow. Those towns without ready supplies of rivers and streams - such as Wigan - were at a severe disadvantage before the successful application of steam power. Conversely, towns such as Stockport, Manchester and the Rossendale Valley towns benefitted from plentiful water supplies.