Sir Richard Arkwright was an English inventor and cotton manufacturer during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. He developed a mechanical machine for spinning cotton, a process that was up to this time done in small homes and farms. He also developed an early model for the factory system based on division of labor and a management system.
The youngest of 13 children, Richard Arkwright was born in Preston, England, on December 23, 1732. His parents were very poor and could not afford to send him to school. Instead, he was tutored by a cousin to read and write. After learning the basics, he was apprenticed to a barber and by 1750 was practicing his trade of wig-making. He acquired a secret method for dying hair and traveled about England purchasing human hair for the manufacture of wigs. These travels brought him into contact with people who were interested in designing and using machines for spinning and weaving. When the fashion for wearing wigs fell out of favor, he became interested in designing mechanical inventions to increase the speed of spinning the cotton thread used in making cloth textiles.
The industry most associated with the Industrial Revolution was the textile industry. Prior to the mid-1750s, the spinning of yarns and the weaving of cloth occurred primarily in the home, with most of the work done by people working alone or in conjunction with family members. However, in Great Britain during the late 1700s, many specialized machines powered by water or steam appeared that eventually replaced the cottage system of textile production. With the aid of these machines, a single spinner or weaver now could turn out many times the volume of yarn or cloth that earlier workers had produced.
By 1767 a machine for carding cotton had been introduced into England, and James Hargreaves (1720?-1778) had invented the spinning jenny. These machines, however, required considerable labor as well as producing an inferior quality of cotton thread. This led Arkwright and colleagues John Kay (1704-1764) and Thomas Highs to design and develop a machine called the spinning frame or water frame. Arkwright's machine involved three sets of paired rollers that turned at different speeds and thereby applied the correct amount of tension to produce the thread. The rollers were able to produce a thread of the correct thickness, and the spindles twisted the fibers firmly together. Although the frame produced a coarse, hard thread, its strength was well suited as a warp thread.
As this first machine was put to use, the local hand-spinning weavers, concerned for their livelihood, forced Arkwright to relocate to another town. After moving the factory there, he went into partnership with Jedediah Strutt (1726-1797), the inventor of the stocking frame. The early frames were too large to be operated by people-power, and after a brief attempt to use horsepower, they began to experiment with the use of a water wheel. By 1771 Arkwright's invention became known as a water-frame. By 1790 his factories used the steam engine to pump water to the millrace of a waterwheel. Within a few years he was operating numerous factories equipped with machinery for carrying out all phases of textile manufacturing from carding to spinning.
These new machines required many workers to operate them. In one town of Cromford, he built a large number of cottages close to the factory. He imported workers from the neighboring countryside, preferring weavers with large families. While the women and children worked in the spinning-factory, the weavers worked at home turning the yarn into cloth. The factory employees worked from six in the morning to seven at night. Children, some as young as six, made up two-thirds of the 1,900-person work force.
Arkwright maintained his dominant position in the textile industry despite the loss of his comprehensive patent in 1785. Even though others copied his machinery, he was knighted by King George III in 1786 and accumulated a large fortune by the time of his death on August 3, 1792.