James Hargreaves, a relatively obscure figure in history, impacted the world with his influential invention. It was this innovation that made him a key contributor in the journey toward the Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain in the late 1700s. Hargreaves's Spinning Jenny changed the face of textile manufacturing.
Although little is known about his life, he was most likely born in Blackburn, Lancashire, England. Hargreaves was never formally educated and remained illiterate throughout his life.
Hargreaves learned the spinning trade as a boy, when he also worked as a carpenter. By the 1760s, Hargreaves had moved to the nearby village of Standhill. He worked as a spinner in his home, where he was proprietor of his own spinning wheel and loom.
During his time, Hargreaves's home of Lancashire was a center for England's production of cotton goods. However, as the Industrial Revolution had not yet taken a firm hold, it was common practice for most spinners to be relegated to their homes to complete the day's work. Cards, spinning wheels, and looms were all operated by hand.
Hargreaves began experimenting with a new machine that could spin two threads at once. His original design called for horizontally oriented spindles, which allowed threads to become tangled. It is said that Hargreaves's daughter, Jenny, accidentally knocked over her father's experiment and, as its wheel continued to spin freely with the spindles in a vertical position, Hargreaves had his vision. Thanks to his daughter, he also had a name for the new machine: the spinning jenny.
Hargreaves began building a spinning machine that would accommodate an ambitious eight threads. In 1764, Hargreaves had built the spinning jenny. The machine worked by threading eight spindles at once just by turning a single wheel. An operator could now easily spin eight threads at once. During this time, when it was common for children to work alongside adults, the spinning jenny was a friendly tool for their hands as well.
Although the machine was revolutionary, the yarn it produced was relatively weak and could only be used for weft, the horizontal threads that make up part of the mesh of fabric.
With its new weapon, the amount of yarn being produced by Hargreaves's household was unprecedented. But once Hargreaves began selling his invention to other spinners, the bulk of the local work force became alarmed. Fearing cheaper competition, Lancashire spinners broke into his home and destroyed his invention. Hargreaves responded to the attack by moving to Nottingham in 1768, where he set up a successful spinning mill.
It wasn't until 1770 that Hargreaves finally applied for a patent on the spinning jenny. However, by that time, having already sold several of his machines, the patent was declared invalid when challenged in court. Other spinners were now free to profit from his invention without paying Hargreaves royalties.
As with most inventions, others began improving upon Hargreaves's design. (Richard Arkwright and Samuel Crompton are credited with finally perfecting mechanical spinning.)
The machines evolved, eventually employing 18 to 120 spindles, and yarn production was greatly increased. The number of threads able to be produced at one time grew from eight to 80. When Hargreaves died in Nottinghamshire on April 22, 1778, more than 20,000 spinning jenny machines were producing yarn in Britain.