Early in the eighteenth century Englishman John Kay (1704-1764) invented the flying shuttle, allowing weavers to produce material much faster than ever before. While this solved one problem, it created another: the spinning of yarn was still done by hand on the "Great Wheel," one thread at a time, and could not keep up with the demand brought on by Kay's new loom. To help increase the supply of yarn, the Royal Society of Arts offered cash prizes to anyone who invented a faster spinning machine. The first one to do so was James Hargreaves.
Hargreaves grew up in Lancashire, England, learning the trades of carpentry and weaving. He did not become an inventor until 1740, when he was employed by a local businessman to construct a better carding machine. A few years later, it is said, Hargreaves accidentally toppled the spinning wheel in his home. As it lay on its side, Hargreaves noticed the wheel and the spindle were still in motion, even though they had been tipped ninety degrees. It occurred to him that a mechanical spinner could be designed in which many spindles, set vertically and side-by-side, could spin a number of threads from just one horizontal wheel.
Hargreaves began constructing just such a machine in 1754; fourteen years and many prototypes later, the spinning jenny was complete. The spinning jenny was the first machine that accurately simulated the drafting motion of human fingers. This was vitally important to the success of the spinner, for it eliminated the need to draw cotton fibers out by hand. The jenny had one large wheel playing out cotton roving to eight different spindles, thus spinning eight threads at once.
Because the design was essentially the same as a spinning wheel (only eightfold) the yarn produced was still lumpy and uneven in places; however, it was sufficient for the weaving of many different fabrics, particularly when woven together with threads of linen. It was also ideal for the spinning of wool thread and yarn. Unlike many inventors that would follow him, Hargreaves did not plan to become wealthy from his invention--in fact, the first U jennies were used only in his home. Soon, however, the Hargreaves family suffered some financial setbacks, and he was forced to sell a few of his machines to mills.
His neighbors feared the new machine, thinking it would soon replace them all, and in 1768 they formed a mob that gutted the Hargreaves home and destroyed his jenny. Understandably upset, Hargreaves and his family moved to Nottingham. There he entered a partnership with Thomas James, and the two men opened their own cotton mill.
In 1769, Richard Arkwright successfully patented his water frame spinning machine (along with most of the machines associated with the spinning process, not all of which were of Arkwright's design). Inspired, Hargreaves enlisted legal aid to help him patent the jenny. By that time, many Lancashire mills had copied the jenny design illegally, an infringement for which Hargreaves sought restitution. His case was dismissed, however, when the court discovered that he had sold jennies in Lancashire a few years earlier.
By 1777 the water frame had almost completely replaced the jenny as England's most popular spinning machine: the yarn it produced was stronger and smoother, much more suited to the needs of the now-dominant hosiery industry. (Both the jenny and the water frame would ultimately be replaced by Samuel Crompton's spinning mule.) Hargreaves was never awarded the patent or the restitution he fought for; he died poor (compared, at least, to Arkwright) in 1778.