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Inventions & inventors
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Inventors of new textile machinery rarely developed their machines from scratch; rather their work drew on that of earlier inventors and traditional hand machines. Luck, good timing and business acumen played as big a role as technical innovation. Below is a summary of the main inventions and inventors who helped change the British cotton trade from modest domestic production to the most important export industry of the Industrial Revolution.

Early inventions

Cotton was originally spun by hand using a distaff and weighted spindle. The spinning wheel found its way to Europe from the East in the 1400s, and represented a major advance in that the spindle could be turned mechanically. Improvements to the spinning wheel in the 16th century enabled the machine to spin and wind the yarn onto a bobbin. The handloom was first used to weave sheep's wool as far back as 5,000 years ago, and was introduced to Britain by the Romans.

William Lee (d. 1610): the knitting frame, 1589

Cleric William Lee invented the stocking knitting frame in 1589, an early mechanization of hand machinery. The machine (eventually) helped revolutionise the hosiery industry in the East Midlands almost 200 years before the Industrial Revolution. Lee's invention was far from welcomed by Queen Elizabeth I and King James, and he later accepted French King Henri IV's invitation to settle in Rouen.

Lewis Paul (d.1759) and John Wyatt: the roller spinning frame, 1732

Lewis Paul and John Wyatt patented their roller spinning frame, an early attempt to mechanise cotton spinning. They built a spinning mill in Birmingham, but the business was not a success and it was another 30 years before the idea was adopted in Arkwright's Water Frame. Paul also later patented a carding frame (1748) and another spinning machine in 1758.

John Kay (1704-1780): the Flying Shuttle, 1733

Kay was born in Bury, and his early inventions included a mohair twisting and carding engine (1730) and improved metal loom reeds. His invention of the flying shuttle more than doubled the speed of handloom weaving. The shuttle itself is shaped like an elongated bullet and was used to "throw" weft thread across the warp thread on a loom. Prior to his invention, the shuttle had been transported from one side of the cloth to the other by hand, and required two workers to be employed if weaving broadcloth. On a loom equipped with a flying shuttle, broadcloth could be produced by a single weaver. The flying shuttle also improved the quality of the cloth produced. Kay was effectively ruined trying to defend his patent, and in 1753 his house was besieged by a mob of machine breakers who feared his invention would lead to unemployment. Kay fled to France, where he attempted to introduce the flying shuttle, with limited success: he died in Paris around 1780, in poverty.

James Hargreaves (1720-1778): Spinning Jenny, 1764

Hargreaves, a handloom weaver born in Blackburn, sought a way of increasing the output of spun yarn (at this time it took six spinners to keep one handloom weaver supplied with sufficient yarn). His solution, adopted from the traditional "Jersey" wheel, was known as the spinning 'jenny', which enabled a number of wool or cotton threads to be produced by one person, simultaneously spinning yarn onto eight or more spindles. Furthermore the machine was simple to use and could easily be operated by a relatively unskilled child. Originally Hargreaves employed his invention for his own use, but later began to sell the machine to others. In 1768, a mob of Blackburn hand-spinners, fearful of the production of cheaper yarn and unemployment, destroyed his house. Hargreaves, like Kay before him, fled the area, but he settled in Nottingham and successfully established a small cotton spinning mill using the jenny to produce yarn. The yarn the jenny produced was not as fine as that spun on a handwheel and was superseded by Crompton's mule that produced far finer yarn than Hargreaves' invention.

Richard Arkwright (1732-1792): Water Frame, 1770

Preston-born manufacturing pioneer Arkwright worked in Bolton as a barber and wig-maker in the 1750s: by 1760s he worked with watchmaker John Kay (not the Kay above) and John Smalley to develop the 'water frame', which Arkwright patented in 1770. Kay's former associate Thomas Highs claimed the water frame had been his idea. This would not be the last time that Arkwright was accused of intellectual theft. In 1771, Arkwright built his cotton spinning factory at Cromford, Derbyshire, in partnership with Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need. By 1773 Arkwright produced the first machine-manufactured pure cotton cloth (calico) - which required a special Act of Parliament to exempt the fabric from duty. In 1779, a group of handspinners sacked his mill at Chorley, but by 1782, Arkwright employed 5,000 workers. Arkwright complained infringements of his patents throughout the 1780s, but competing textile machine manufacturers successfully issued counter-claims against him, and his patents were cancelled in 1785. He was knighted in 1786, became High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1787, and moved to Nottingham in 1790, building a steam-powered spinning mill there in 1790. Arkwright continued to work from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., which undoubtedly worsened the heart problems that killed him on 3rd August, 1792. Sir Richard Arkwright died worth half a million pounds, the equivalent of 35 million in current values. The key to his success was, perhaps, that he was an entrepreneur rather than an inventor, someone who took existing ideas and made them both work and pay.

Thomas Highs (1718-1803)

Born in Leigh, Lancashire, Thomas Highs is one of the unsung heroes of the Industrial Revolution. A reed maker by trade, he was a brilliant inventor, but like Crompton a poor businessmen and too impoverished to patent his own inventions. He developed the forerunner of both spinning jenny and water frame, the former which he handed onto James Hargreaves before perfecting it, the latter which was later built by Kay and Arkwright. In his "Compendious History of the Cotton Industry", Richard Guest notes of Highs that: "we are indebted to a man of humble life, whose poverty and want of patronage prevented him from either reaping the pecuniary benefit, or establishing his claims to that fame to which his ingenuity entitled him. By borrowing his ingenious inventions, the late Sir Richard Arkwright lived to acquire a princely fortune ... while the man to whose painful labours and ingenious contrivances Sir Richard was indebted for those honours, lived in obscurity, to languish in his original poverty."

Samuel Crompton (1753-1827): The Spinning Mule, 1775

Samuel Crompton was born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1753 and made his home at Hall I'th' Wood (now a museum run by Bolton MBC). Perhaps more than any other machine, Crompton's mule (developed 1772-79), revolutionised the Lancashire cotton industry. Crompton built his machine to combine the best features of Hargreaves' spinning jenny and Arkwright's water frame (hence 'mule' - a hybrid). The mule spun a fine but strong, even yarn in a continuous motion, good enough to enable the production of fine cloths such as muslin. The mass production of these fabrics opened up new markets, and accelerated the movement of the spinning process from home to factory. Crompton could not afford to patent his invention, and sold the design to local manufacturers on the understanding that they paid a subscription: few paid. In his desperation, Crompton travelled throughout the cotton districts assessing how many spinning mills were using his invention and how many spindles were in operation. The resulting Spindles Enquiry of 1811 (now preserved at Bolton Archives) can be viewed on this site in full: Crompton used the enquiry as the basis of a compensation claim to Parliament. The Government initially planned to pay Crompton 10,000, but before this sum was approved, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated (11 May 1812) and the matter was postponed. Crompton later received a reduced sum of 5,000, but he largely wasted this sum on unsuccessful business ventures and died a relatively poor man in 1827.

Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823): the power loom, 1785

Born in Nottingham, Rev. Edmund Cartwright patented his design for the power loom in 1785. Cartwright's was the first power loom to be built: Robert and Thomas Barber patented a design in 1774, but it was not developed. Cartwright visited Arkwright's spinning mills in the 1770s and this inspired him to develop a powered loom that would do for weaving what the water frame and mule had done for spinning. Cartwright slowly improved his loom and opened a cotton factory at Doncaster in 1878. The mill was later converted to steam power, but failed and bankrupted in 1793. Cartwright's power looms required constant adjustment and the yarn required much 'warp dressing' - the brushing of flour paste onto the lengthwise yarn to make it strong enough to withstand being woven on the machines. The power loom was gradually adopted in the early 1800s, but there much violent resistance by handloom weavers - in 1799 a Manchester mill using 24 of Cartwright's looms was burned down. Manufacturers were hesitant of risking their mills for the sake of experimenting with the unreliable new loom. It was not until improvements, notably Kenworthy and Bullough's "Lancashire Loom" (1842), that the power loom became widely adopted. Cartwright was (eventually) awarded 10,000 by Parliament in 1809.

Eli Whitney (1765-1825): The Cotton Gin, 1793

Born in Westborough, Massachusetts, Whitney developed the cotton gin ('gin' from engine), which mechanically separated the cotton seed from the fibre. Like his British counterparts Kay, Arkwright and Crompton, he had considerable trouble preventing the theft of his invention, and in 1798 gave up trying to defend the patent on the cotton gin, turning his attention to manufacturing firearms. Whitney's importance as an inventor stems from his adoption of standardisation - his production methods were a forerunner of the modern assembly line. His use of machine tools to make machinery with fully interchangeable parts, together with the adoption of a division of labour (workers performing highly specific tasks) and mass production techniques, made Whitney one of the foremost industrial pioneers of his time.

Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834): The Jacquard Loom, 1801

Jacquard was born in Lyon, France and was effectively the inventor of the world's earliest 'computer-controlled' machinery. Jacquard invented a punch-card system for programming designs into a carpet-making loom, and by 1801 his looms used a series of these cards to control the way in which warp yarn was depressed before the shuttle travelled across the loom, thus enabling the machine to produce patterned fabric without a skilled weaver. He improved his machine in Paris after 1804, and later machines used an endless loop of punched "programmed" cards that allowed for the weaving of carpets with a continuous pattern. Throughout France, Jacquard looms were broken by weavers who feared that his invention would put them out of work: their fears were well-founded: by 1812, there were over 11,000 Jacquard looms working in France, and in Britain by the 1830s there were around 100,000 looms utilising Jacquard design. Jacquard's inventions (later improved by others) enabled the production of woven fabrics without need for a skilled weaver, whose role became more one of planning the pattern beforehand. Once a pattern had been punched onto cards, it could be used again and again. In 1822 Charles Babbage used Jacquard-type cards to programme his mechanical calculator, later to become the basis of modern computers. Jacquard-type punched cards were still used in computing as late as the 1950s.

Richard Roberts (1789-1864): the improved self-acting mule, 1824

Engineer Richard Roberts, born in Montgomeryshire, on the border of Wales and Shropshire. He served as apprentice to Henry Maudslay (who revolutionised screw-making) and opened a business in Manchester in 1817. Roberts filed 25 patents for all kinds of inventions, including a screw-cutting lathe, the first successful gas meter and a Jacquard hole punching machine (invented in a day) which, used to punch rivet holes, speeded the construction of the Conway Tubular Bridge. In 1822, Roberts successfully improved Horrocks' metal-framed power loom, and in 1822 began to improve Crompton's original mule, which still required both physical strength and skill to operate. Mule spinners' commanded high wages, and when the early 1820s saw a spate of spinners' strikes: manufacturers sought to develop a machine that could be operated by semi-skilled workers. By 1830 Roberts succeeded in producing the self-acting mule, which was running 100,000 spindles by 1833 and 500,000 by 1837. Andrew Ure described the machine as "the Iron Man sprung out of the hands of our modern Prometheus a creation destined to restore order among the industrious classes". But Roberts did his work too well: existing mules could be cheaply converted to self-acting mules, and it took a long time for him to recoup his 12,000 development costs: by the time his invention began to pay, the patent had expired. Roberts dissolved his company and moved to London, and despite many other many other inventions, he died in poverty in 1864.

James Bullough (1800-68) and William Kenworthy
- the "Lancashire Loom", 1842

James Bullough (1800-68) was a quiet Accrington man, described as a simple-minded West Houghton weaver, who none the less went on to a position of affluence gained in the face of many difficulties. Originally a handloom weaver, unlike others of his trade, Bullough embraced new developments and while colleagues were busy rejecting new devices, Bullough improved his own loom by inventing various components, including the 'self-acting temple'. Bullough also invented a simple but effective warning device which rang a bell every time the warp thread broke on his loom. Bullough settled in Blackburn and worked with William Kenworthy at Brookhouse Mills, with whom he applied his inventions to develop an improved power loom that later became known simply as the "Lancashire Loom." Although forced to quit Blackburn, for fear of angry handloom weavers, Bullough later settled in Accrington to form Howard and Bullough in partnership with John Howard at Atlas Works in Accrington, where he invented the slasher, which founded the company's success. But it was Kenworthy and Bullough's patented improvements to the power loom that made the Lancashire Loom the mainstay of weaving for the next century.

John Mercer (1791-1866) - "Mercerisation", 1850

John Mercer was born in Great Harwood in 1791. His "Mercerisation" process gives cotton a silk-lustre by treating the material with caustic soda. Mercer developed the process between 1844 and 1850. Mercer discovered that when a piece of bleached cotton cloth was immersed in caustic soda, then washed, the fibre was found to become more silk-like and was also more amenable to dyeing. This followed his invention (1844) of a formula for red ink for which he received 10,000. The Mercerisation process was not taken up in Mercer's lifetime - it was expensive and caused the cotton cloth to shrink. Not until inventor Horace Lowe improved the process did it become viable. Lowe developed a way of preventing shrinkage by keeping the material under tension whilst being Mercerised and thoroughly washing away the caustic soda before finishing. Mercer had an eventful life and was something of a character. He was a typical self-made Lancashire inventor, with few early advantages. In 1807 an orange-coloured frock his infant brother Billy was wearing "set him all on fire to learn dyeing." He worked as a bobbin winder from age 9, his father died in 1802, followed by his mother and step-father in 1810. Although nicknamed "Awkward John", he was also "eminently lovable" - when made a JP in 1861, his friends thought him "too merciful" to be a magistrate. Mercer was a generous man who donated much to the community, including Mercer Hall in Great Harwood and the park in Clayton-le-Moors. The memorial clock in Great Harwood commemorates his life and work.

William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) - mauve aniline, 1856

William Henry Perkin discovered a way of producing coloured dyestuffs from coal tar, a waste product of the gas industry. His genius was in recognising the potential of the product and marketing it amidst opposition from chemists and dyers of the day. In the Easter of 1856 (during an experiment attempting to artificially produce quinine in his home laboratory), Perkin produced a muddy dark precipitate, which Perkin later refined to a purple coloured matter, which he tried as a dye on silk. He demonstrated the product to dyers, Messrs. Pullar of Perth in Scotland, who were impressed: "if your discovery does not make the goods too expensive it is decidedly the most valuable that has come out for a long time." The high cost and difficulty of obtaining aniline used meant that mauveine would be costly to produce, but Perkin patented the invention at the age of eighteen. Perkin's father risked nearly all his savings to build a factory at Greenford Green, London, which began supplying mauveine dye for the silk industry in December 1857. In 1862 Queen Victoria appeared at the Royal Exhibition in a silk gown dyed with mauveine, starting a new fashion. Perkin's invention led the way for other chemists to experiment with aniline colours, and with the initial difficulties overcome, dyes of all colours were soon produced. Perkin sold his factory in 1874, having retired from the business in 1873, but he did not end his research, synthesized coumarin in 1874, which produced the odour of "new mown hay", present in many herbs, initiating the synthetic perfumes industry. Soon there was little that could not be reproduced in the laboratory: scents, tastes, colours, the sensory world exploded thanks to an eighteen year old boy who was interested in crystals. Perkin was knighted in 1906.

J.H. Northrop - the automatic loom, 1894

While many British cotton companies continued to weave on Lancashire looms, in America the Northrop automatic power loom sped the production of cloth. Worse still, the spirit of enterprise and inventiveness which had fuelled the Industrial Revolution seemed to have flagged. When J.H. Northrop tried to interest British textile machine makers in his invention for an 'automatic' loom (which removed the need for the weaver constantly handling the shuttle) they showed little interest in the idea. It was left to Northrop to patent the idea in the US in 1894, with the first automatic looms only slowly introduced to Britain in 1902.


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