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Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792)

This article was written by Thomas Finlayson Henderson and was published in 1885.

ArkwrightSir Richard Arkwright, one of the earliest and principal contrivers of machinery on a large scale as a substitute for hand labour in textile manufactures, was born at Preston 23 December 1732. His parents, if not poor, belonged to the humbler ranks of life, and he is said to have been the youngest of thirteen children. Baines states that ‘there are reasons for believing that he was born in a house afterwards occupied by Mr. Clare, hosier, in Lord Street, pulled down about 1854.’ Its site, according to Hardwick, is now occupied by the south end of Stanley Buildings, Lancaster Road. Hardwick conveys the impression that Arkwright resided there while practising the trade of a barber; but as he elsewhere, on the authority of Baines, mentions the house as that in which Arkwright was born, he would seem to have been possessed of no independent information on the subject. Arkwright is said to have served his apprenticeship to one Nicholson of Preston, but there is no evidence that he set up in business in that town. Besides his apprenticeship to a barber, all that is known of his early life is that his uncle Richard taught him reading, and that, probably while an apprentice, he attended a school during the winter months. By making the most of his opportunities he perhaps acquired a somewhat better education than was then customary in the lower ranks of life. At the age of fifty he indeed felt its defects so much in conducting his correspondence and the management of his business, that he encroached upon his sleep in order to gain an hour each day to learn English grammar, and another hour to improve his writing and orthography, but his perseverance in these tasks at such an age would seem to indicate a considerable amount of original training.

Soon after the close of his apprenticeship he is supposed to have settled in Bolton, probably about 1750. In any case his settlement there took place before his marriage, 31 March 1755, in the parish church of the town, to ‘Patients, daughter of Robert Holt of Bolton, schoolmaster.’ Baines states that he established himself at Bolton in the year 1760, but this apparently is a mere misreading of a statement of Guest that Arkwright was living in Bolton as a barber at that particular date. There is no information as to when the first wife of Arkwright died, but on 24 March 1761 he was married for the second time in the parish church of Leigh to Margaret Biggins of Pennington. Shortly before or shortly after his second marriage, Arkwright removed from his small shop in Churchgate to a better one at the end of the passage leading up to what was then the White Bear public-house. The small property, ‘perhaps of the value of £400,’ possessed by his wife, though settled on herself, was probably advantageous in assisting him to develop his business; for about this time indications of his enterprising spirit become visible in his engaging as his journeyman a workman from Leigh specially skilled in making the strong country wigs then in general use. Shortly afterwards he began to travel through the country to buy human hair, attending for this purpose the hiring fairs frequented by young girls seeking service. He had got possessed of a valuable chemical secret for dyeing it, and thus was enabled to add to his business a new source of profit, by selling the hair dyed and prepared to the wigmakers.

The gradual disuse of wigs is assigned by some as the reason why Arkwright began to turn his attention to mechanical inventions as likely to afford him a new source of income; but, as during his journeys he was brought into constant intercourse with persons engaged in weaving and spinning, his inquisitive and strongly practical intelligence would in any case have been naturally led to take a keen interest in inventions which were a constant topic of conversation among the manufacturing population. The invention of the fly shuttle by Kay of Bury had so greatly increased the demand for yarn, that it began to be impossible to meet it merely by hand labour. A machine for carding cotton had been introduced into Lancashire about 1760, but until 1767 spinning continued to be executed wholly by the old-fashioned hand wheel. It was in that year that Hargreaves had completed his invention of the spinning-jenny, which he patented in 1770. The thread spun by the jenny was, however, suitable only for weft, and the roving process still required to be performed by hand. Probably Arkwright knew nothing of the experiments of Hargreaves, when, in 1767, he asked Kay, a clockmaker then residing at Warrington, to ‘bend him some wires and turn him some pieces of brass’. Shortly afterwards Arkwright gave up his business at Bolton, and devoted his whole attention to the perfecting of a contrivance for spinning by rollers. After getting Kay to construct for him certain wooden models, which convinced him that the solution of the problem had been accomplished, he is said to have applied to a Mr. Atherton of Warrington to make the spinning-machine, who, from the poverty of Arkwright's appearance, declined to undertake it. He, however, agreed to lend Kay a smith and watch-tool maker to do the heavier part of the engine, and Kay undertook to make the clockmaker's part of it. Arkwright and Kay then proceeded to Preston, where with the co-operation of a friend of Arkwright, Mr. John Smalley, described as a ‘liquor merchant and painter,’ the machine was constructed and set up in the parlour of the house belonging to the Free Grammar School. The room seems to have been chosen for its secluded position, being hidden by a garden filled with gooseberry trees; but the very secrecy of their operations aroused suspicion, and popular superstition at once connected them with some kind of witchcraft or sorcery. Two old women who lived close by averred that they heard strange noises in it of a humming nature, as if the devil were tuning his bagpipes and Arkwright and Kay were dancing a reel; and so much consternation was produced that many were inclined to break open the place. The building has since been changed into a public-house, which is known as the Arkwright Arms. As a proof of the straits to which Arkwright was then reduced and the degree to which he had sacrificed his comfort in order to obtain the means of completing his invention, it is stated that his clothes were in such a ragged state that he declined, unless supplied with a new suit, to go to record his vote at the Preston election of 1768, which took place while he was engaged in setting up his machine. Having thoroughly satisfied himself of the practical value of his invention, Arkwright removed to Nottingham, already an important seat of the stocking trade, whither Hargreaves, the inventor of the spinning-jenny, had the year previously removed, after his machines had been destroyed by a mob at Blackburn. Arkwright entered into partnership with Smalley from Preston, Kay continuing with him under a bond as a workman; and they erected a spinning-mill between Hockley and Woolpack Lane, a patent being taken out by Arkwright for the machine 3 July 1769.

The spinning-frame of Arkwright was the result of inventive power of a higher and rarer order than that necessary to originate the spinning-jenny. It was much more than a mere development of the old hand-wheel. It implied the application of a new principle, that of spinning by rollers; and in the delicate adjustment of its various parts, and the nice regulation of the different mechanical forces called into operation, so as to make them properly subordinate to the accomplishment of one purpose, we have the first adequate example of those beautiful and intricate mechanical contrivances which have transformed the whole character of the manufacturing industries. The spinning-frame consisted of four pairs of rollers, acting by tooth and pinion. The top roller was covered with leather to enable it to take hold of the cotton, the lower one fluted longitudinally to let the cotton pass through it. By one pair of rollers revolving quicker than another rove was drawn to the requisite fineness for twisting, which was accomplished by spindles or flyers placed in front of each set of rollers. The original invention of Arkwright has neither been superseded nor substantially modified, although it has of course undergone various minor improvements.

The first spinning-mill of Arkwright was driven by horses, but finding this method too expensive, as well as incapable of application on a sufficiently large scale, he resolved to call in the aid of water-power, which had already been successfully applied for a similar purpose, notably in the silk mill erected by Thomas Lombe on the Derwent at Derby in 1717. In 1771 Arkwright therefore went into partnership with Mr. Need of Nottingham and Mr. Strutt of Derby, the possessors of patents for the manufacture of ribbed stockings, and erected his spinning-frame at Cromford in Derbyshire, in a deep, picturesque valley near the Derwent, where he could obtain an easy command of water-power from a never-failing spring of warm water, which even during the severest frost scarcely ever froze. From the fact that the spinning-frame was driven by water, it came to be known as the water-frame; since the application of steam it has been known as the throstle. As the yarn it produced was of a much harder and firmer texture than that spun by the jenny, it was specially suited for warp, but the Lancashire manufacturers declined to make use of it. Arkwright and his partners, therefore, wove it at first into stockings, which, on account of the smoothness and equality of the yarn, were greatly superior to those woven from the hand-spun cotton. In 1773 he began to use the thread as warp for the manufacture of calicoes, instead of the linen warp formerly used together with the cotton weft, and thus a cloth solely of cotton was for the first time produced in England. It met at once with a great demand, but, on account of an act passed in 1736 for the protection of the woollen manufactures of England against the calicoes of India, it was liable to a double duty, which, at the instance of the Lancashire manufacturers, was speedily enforced. Notwithstanding their strenuous opposition, Arkwright, however, in 1774 obtained an act specially exempting from extra duty the ‘new manufacture of stuffs wholly made of raw cotton wool.’ Up to this time more than £12,000 had been expended by Arkwright and his partners on machinery with little or no return, but after the new act the cotton manufacture created by his energy and genius developed with amazing rapidity, until it became the leading industry of the north of England.

While struggling against the mingled inertness and active opposition of the manufacturers, Arkwright had all the while been busily engaged in augmenting the capability and efficiency of his machinery, and in 1775 he brought out a patent for a series of adaptations and inventions by means of which the whole process of yarn manufacture — including carding, drawing, roving, and spinning — was performed by a beautifully arranged succession of operations on one machine. With the grant of this patent every obstacle in the way of a sufficient supply of yarn was overcome, and, whatever might happen to Arkwright, the prosperity of the cotton manufacture was guaranteed. Afterwards the invention was adapted for the woollen and worsted trade with equal success.

Meanwhile Arkwright, besides building several additional cotton mills, sold grants of his patents to numerous cotton spinners in the northern and midland counties. By 1782 he concluded that a business had in this way been formed which employed upwards of five thousand persons and a capital on the whole of not less than £200,000. New difficulties, however, began to arise in his path. In 1779 serious riots occurred in Lancashire, and a mill which Arkwright had erected at Chorley at great expense was completely sacked. Up to this time the incompetency of his workers and mechanics and the slow sale of his yarn had almost daunted his energy. The destruction of his mill, happening when it did, strained his resources, therefore, to their utmost limits, while the increasing infringements of his patent threatened to extinguish one of his most valuable sources of profit. For a time he was baffled in his attempts to proceed against the infringers, on account of the precautions they made use of to conceal their operations, for they took care that none but persons sworn to secrecy should be employed as workmen. At last in 1781 he brought an action against nine firms. The first cause selected for trial was that against Colonel Mordaunt, who at once admitted his use of Arkwright's machine, but pleaded insufficiency of specification in the patent, and on that ground Arkwright was nonsuited. In the following year Arkwright dissolved his partnership with Need and Strutt, retaining in his own hands the mill at Cromford. Shortly afterwards he drew up a statement of his ‘Case,’ in which, after recording his difficulties and disappointments, he concluded by praying that the ‘legislature would be pleased to confirm, connect, and consolidate the two letters patent so as to preserve to him the full benefit of his invention for the remainder of the term yet to come in the last patent.’ The one patent would expire in 1783 and the other in 1789. Although the statement was circulated among members of parliament, no further action was taken by him to influence the legislature in the matter. In 1785 he, however, made a new effort to enforce the validity of his second patent, and in the court of Common Pleas an action against its infringement, where the plea of insufficiency of specification was set up, was decided in his favour. This verdict greatly alarmed the cotton-spinners, for, owing to the verdict of 1781, the unauthorised use of the patent had grown so greatly that in 1785 it was calculated that thirty thousand persons were employed in establishments set up in defiance of it, the capital expended on buildings being about £300,000. Several of the manufacturers, therefore, combined in self-defence, and obtained from the lord chancellor a writ of scire facias [literally, 'let them/him/us know'] for a new trial. The case was tried in the court of King's Bench before Mr. Justice Buller and a special jury, 25 June 1785, when for the first time Arkwright's claim to the invention was disputed. The points on which the jury had to decide were stated by the judge to be three: ‘1. Is the invention new? 2. Is it invented by the defendant? 3. Was it sufficiently described in the specification?’ To answer any of these questions in the negative was of course fatal to the patent. The judge summed up unmistakably for the crown against Arkwright on every point, and the jury without a moment's hesitation brought in their verdict for the crown. On 10 November Arkwright moved for a rule to show cause why there should not be a new trial, alleging that he had new evidence to contradict that adduced against the originality of the invention; but the application was refused, the mere ability to give more evidence not being regarded as a sufficient reason for the rule. On the 14th of the same month judgment was given to cancel the letters patent.

For deficiency in the specification no amount of new evidence could atone, and the judge was persuaded that on this point as well as the others Arkwright ‘had not a leg to stand upon.’ It was proved that Arkwright had given directions that the specification should ‘be as obscure as the nature of the case would admit;’ but besides this he had introduced into it articles intended to render it unintelligible, and some of which, if put into operation, would inevitably have spoiled the cotton. The deficiency of specification he had also in his statement of his ‘Case’ in 1782 practically admitted, though asserting that, so far from intending to perpetrate ‘a fraud upon his country,’ he was ‘anxiously desirous of preserving to his native country the full benefit of his inventions.’ It is to be presumed, however, that he had more reason to dread infringements of his patents at home than abroad; and as this was of itself sufficient reason for his desire to make the specification obscure or misleading, it is not absolutely necessary to suppose either that he wished to utilise to his own special advantage improvements which were not his own invention, or that he designed to preserve to himself the benefits of his patents beyond the legal period of fourteen years.

In regard to the originality of the invention the opponents of Arkwright sought to prove that the whole series of machines included in the patent were stolen by Arkwright from others, his sole title to originality being the combination of them into one machine. This implied the denial of his right to the spinning patent of 1769, which had expired in 1783, but was practically continued to him by the patent of 1775. In support of their allegation in reference to this patent the opponents of Arkwright relied chiefly on two witnesses, Kay, the watchmaker, who had made the models for Arkwright, and Thomas Highs or Hayes, a reedmaker at Leigh, whom Kay asserted to be the original inventor of the models. The evidence of Kay was tainted by the fact that he was confessedly guilty of a fraud in revealing to Arkwright the secret of Highs, that he had fled from Arkwright when threatened with a charge of felony, and that he had in conversation represented himself to be the author of the invention. Further, it does not appear that he was ever treated by Arkwright otherwise than as a mere workman, which may of course have been owing to the superior astuteness and force of character of the latter, although it is scarcely compatible with the supposition that he was indebted to Kay for the whole secret of the invention. The evidence of Kay was confirmed by that of his wife in so far as concerned the assertion that he had made models for Highs. Kay had undoubtedly been employed by Highs to make models, but this does not render it impossible that Arkwright, having some previous acquaintance with Kay at Leigh, employed him at Warrington simply on the ground of this acquaintance, and because, wishing to carry on his experiments secretly, it was easier to do so at a distance from Bolton. The evidence of Highs was on several important points both obscure and contradictory. He asserted that he had made rollers for spinning in 1767 on the principle of the one set going faster than the other, but confessedly they must have been incapable of performing the operation of spinning, for he admitted that it was not till 1769 — that is the year after Arkwright removed to Nottingham — that he had hit on the contrivance of having the one roller fluted and the other covered with leather, a contrivance without which it was impossible that a machine constructed on Arkwright's principles could work. Further, none of the machines by which Highs asserted that he had spun cotton as an experiment were ever produced, and on this ground alone Arkwright — if it be merely a question between his word and that of Highs — must be held to possess the preferable claim to the invention. It has been argued in error that Arkwright misdescribed his occupation in his first patent, but as a matter of fact he merely described himself there as ‘of the town of Nottingham in the county of Nottingham,’ nor was any trade mentioned in his second patent. A punctilious regard for the rights of inventors was not a characteristic trait of those among whom Arkwright lived, and he may not have considered himself very blameworthy in utilising the ideas of Highs, which, in the words of Highs, had not then ‘been brought to bear.’ At the same time, even if he were indebted to Highs at all, it may have been for nothing more than a knowledge of the invention of Lewis Paul, who had obtained a patent for spinning by rollers in 1738. So radically different, however, were the machines of Paul from that of Arkwright, that probably when the latter constructed it, he possessed no accurate knowledge of what had been done by Paul. Another of Paul's machines, patented in 1758, did not include spinning by rollers.

The machine of Arkwright was adapted for roving by means of a revolving can which a witness asserted he had used in 1774, although, as it happened, the can had been made for him by two men in Arkwright's employment. For the process of carding additions and improvements of great ingenuity were affixed to the carding cylinder patented by Paul in 1748, transforming it into an entirely new machine. The most important of these were the crank and comb, said to have been used by Hargreaves, but which, according to the somewhat disputable opinion of Baines, Hargreaves stole from Arkwright; the perpetual revolving cloth called the feeder, said to have been used by John Lees, a quaker of Manchester, in 1772, but which Arkwright had undoubtedly used previously at Cromford; and filleted cards on the second cylinder which also must have been used by Arkwright in 1772, although a manufacturer named Wood claimed to have first used them in 1774. Indeed the whole of the complicated self-acting machinery which without the intervention of hand labour performed the different processes necessary to change raw cotton into thread suitable for warp, was substantially the invention of Arkwright; and while each separate machine was in itself a remarkable triumph of inventive skill, the construction of the whole series, and the adaptation of each to its individual function in the continuous succession of operations, must be regarded as an almost unique achievement in the history of invention.

It is from the construction of the mills of Arkwright that we may properly date the origin of the factory system, with its minute division of labour and the regular uninterrupted co-operation of numerous individuals in the different processes of machinery. In overcoming the prejudices of workers, in accustoming them to unremitting diligence during the stated hours of labour, in training them for their particular tasks and inducing them to conform to the regular celerity of the machinery, Arkwright displayed an energy and perseverance perhaps of a higher kind, if less rare, than that which enabled him to originate his inventions. His whole arrangements were framed with the utmost forethought and care, and from the beginning he enforced scrupulous cleanliness and the most systematic order. So admirable were his plans of management that they cannot be said to have yet been in any degree superseded, and their general adoption doubtless rendered the introduction of the factory system much smoother and easier than it would otherwise have been.

The prosperity of Arkwright suffered no serious check from the cancelling of his patents. His experience and extraordinary business capacity, and the start he had obtained, enabled him to retain an advantage over other manufacturers. ‘For several years he fixed the price of cotton twist, all other spinners conforming to his prices’. About 1784 Arkwright had visited Scotland, and assisted David Dale in planning the erection of the New Lanark mills, afterwards associated with the socialistic experiments of Robert Owen; but if he entered into partnership with Dale this was dissolved after the adverse decision in reference to the patent. Several additional mills were, however, erected by him both in Derbyshire and Lancashire, and, notwithstanding a distressing asthmatic affection, he continued to the last actively interested in their management and the introduction of improvements. In 1790 he erected Boulton and Watt's steam engine in his mill at Nottingham. In 1786 Arkwright received the honour of knighthood from George III on the occasion of presenting him with a congratulatory address from the wapentake of Wirksworth on his escape from assassination by Margaret Nicholson. In the following year Arkwright was chosen high sheriff of Derbshire. He purchased the manor of Cromford in 1789, and shortly afterwards obtained the grant of a market for the town. He had begun the erection of a church, and also of Willersley Castle for his own residence, when a complication of disorders resulted in his death 3 August 1792.

Carlyle, forming his opinion from the well-known portrait of Arkwright, describes him as ‘a plain, almost gross, bag-cheeked, pot-bellied Lancashire man, with an air of painful reflection, yet also of copious free digestion.’ Arkwright possessed an energy which would scarcely allow him a moment's rest. He generally laboured ‘in his multifarious concerns from five o'clock in the morning till nine at night,’ and utilised all his time to the best possible advantage. Bad or careless work roused his stern wrath. For the success of his schemes he was ready to endure any personal inconvenience and suffer the severest sacrifices. From the beginning he was so sanguine of the vast results that would follow his inventions ‘that he would make light of discussions on taxation and would say that he would pay the national debt’.

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