Richard Arkwright

Citation metadata

Date: 2006
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 839 words
Lexile Measure: 1220L

Document controls

Main content

About this Person
Born: December 23, 1732 in Preston, United Kingdom
Died: August 03, 1792 in Nottingham, United Kingdom
Nationality: English
Occupation: Inventor
Updated:Jan. 1, 2006
Full Text: 

Sir Richard Arkwright is generally considered the inventor of the first automated process for spinning cotton yarn. He began with the construction of a machine that used rollers to separate the individual fibers, allowing for the spinning of sturdier yarn; this enabled weavers to construct cloth that was, for the first time, entirely made of cotton. Arkwright was born in Lancashire, England, in 1732. As a boy he was apprenticed to a Preston barber, and at the age of 18 he opened his own shop. After several years of mild prosperity he decided to abandon his business, choosing instead to travel the country to purchase human hair for the construction of wigs. Although he had developed a secret formula for dyeing hair, the demand for wigs gradually declined, and Arkwright was forced to change professions once again. During his travels, Arkwright had come in frequent contact with weavers and spinners. The recent invention of the spinning jenny by James Hargreaves had revitalized the industry, and Arkwright recognized that other such inventions could be a source of tremendous profits. He consulted with two engineers, John Kay (1704-1764) and Thomas Highs, and in the late 1760s began experimenting with spinning machines of his own design. Arkwright and Kay rented a workshop in a Preston schoolhouse, where they constructed their first spinning machine. The doors of the shop were kept closed and the activities within were a guarded secret; this, along with the strange noises emanating from within, led the local population to believe that sorcery or witchcraft was being practiced there. In 1768 Arkwright completed the construction of his first spinning machine. Unlike the spinning jenny--which was simply a modification of the traditional spinning wheel --this machine applied new technology to produce yarn of a much higher quality. Arkwright's machine used four pairs of rollers, through which the cotton was drawn. The top roller of each pair was leather, which enabled it to grip the cotton. The bottom roller was made of metal or wood and was fluted, allowing the cotton fibers to pass through. Each pair of rollers turned at a slightly different speed: the first set was the slowest, with the final set turning the fastest. By increasing the speed as it passed through, the cotton's fibers were drafted, or drawn apart; the fibers could then be twisted into stronger, smoother yarn. Arkwright's machine was a vast improvement over existing spinners. However, it was driven by horses--a cumbersome and expensive method that was not easily applied an a large scale. Lacking the funds to make improvements to his design, Arkwright enlisted the partnership of Samuel Need and Jedediah Strutt, two hosiers from Derby. With their financial support he was able to convert his spinning machine to water power, and in 1771 he was granted a patent for the water frame spinner. The cotton yarn produced by the spinning jenny had been too weak to be used as warp (the strong threads used to hold a fabric together); instead, expensive linen threads were used as warp, with cotton threads useful only as weft (the threads that cross the warp). With Arkwright's machine, cotton threads could be made strong enough to serve as both warp and weft, producing for the first time in England cloth made entirely of cotton. Despite the great demand for such material, the sale of cotton cloth was hindered by a high tax on all-cotton fabrics; this tax had been designed to restrict the importing of Indian calicoes, but Arkwright's competitors quickly applied it to his new cottons. In 1774 Arkwright was granted an exception to the calico tax, making the production of cotton fabrics (available exclusively through the use of the water frame spinner) northern England's leading industry. At the same time, Arkwright succeeded in inventing and patenting machines responsible for every process associated with the production of yarn, including carding, drawing, and spinning. While immensely profitable, Arkwright's machines angered his competitors, who suddenly found that most of their technology was owned by Arkwright. Nevertheless they continued to use their own machines without his permission, and in 1781 Arkwright brought legal action against them. The nine firms sued by Arkwright argued that the language of his patents was too vague and claimed credit for technology that had existed for years; Arkwright, who had arranged for the language to do that very thing, was found to have no case. In 1785 he again took legal action to enforce his patents; by that time, however, more than thirty thousand workers were using Arkwright's patented machinery. The combined support of all these manufacturers was too much for Arkwright to contend with, and in November of 1785 his patents were cancelled. Despite the loss of legal authority, Arkwright's business prospered. He was still the most powerful individual producer in the yarn industry, and for years he fixed the price of that commodity. He set up mills all over England and Scotland, and financed other inventions that would benefit the spinning industry. He was knighted by King George III in 1786.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1647000011