1902 Encyclopedia > Richard Arkwright

Sir Richard Arkwright
English inventor
(1732-92)




SIR RICHARD ARKWRIGHT, famous for his inventions in cotton spinning, was born at Preston in Lancashire, in 1732, of parents in humble circumstances. He was the youngest of thirteen children, received but a very indifferent education, and was bred to the trade of a barber. In the year 1760 he had established himself in Bolton-le-Moor, where he exchanged the trade of a barber for that of an itinerant hair-merchant; and having discovered a valuable chemical process for dyeing hair, lie was in consequence enabled to amass a little property. It is unfortunate that very little is known of the steps by which he was led to those inventions that have immortalised his name. His residence in a district where a considerable manufacture of linen goods, and of linen and cotton mixed, was carried on, must have given him ample opportunities of becoming acquainted with the various processes that were in use in the cotton manufacture, and of the attempts that had been made and were then making to improve them. His attention was thus naturally drawn to this peculiar department; and, while he saw reason to conclude that it was likely to prove the most advantageous in which he could engage, he had sagacity and good fortune to invent and improve those extraordinary machines by which, unlike most inventors, he amassed vast wealth, at the same time that he added prodigiously to the demand for labour, and to the riches and comfort of the civilised world.

The spinning-jenny, invented in 1767 by Hargraves, a carpenter at Blackburn in Lancashire, gave the means of spinning twenty or thirty threads at once with no more labour than had previously been required to spin a single thread. The thread spun by the jenny could not, however, be used, except as weft, being destitute of the firmness or hardness required in the longitudinal threads or warp. But Mr Arkwright supplied this deficiency by the invention of the spinning-frame— which spins a vast number of threads of any degree of fineness and hardness. It is not difficult to understand the principle on which this machine is constructed, and the mode of its operation. It consists of two pairs of rollers, turned by means of machinery. The lower roller of each pair is furrowed or fluted longitudinally, and the upper one is covered with leather, to make them take a hold of the cotton. If there were only one pair of rollers, it is clear that a carding of cotton, passed between them, would be drawn forward by the revolution of the rollers; but it would merely undergo a certain degree of compression from their action. No Booner, however, has the carding, or roving as it is technically termed, begun to pass through the first pair of rollers, than it is received by the second pair, which are made to revolve with (as the case may be) three, four, or five times the velocity of the first pair. By this ingenious contrivance the roving is drawn out into a thread of the desired degree of tenuity, a twist being given to it by the adaptation of the spindle and fly of the common flax wheel to the machinery. Such is the principle on which Arkwright constructed his famous spinning-frame. It is obvious that it is radically different from the previous methods of spinning either by the common hand-wheel or distaff, or by the jenny, which is only a modification of the common wheel. The idea was entirely original, and was perfected and reduced to practice with consummate skill. Arkwright stated that he accidentally derived the first hint of his great invention from seeing a red-hot iron bar elongated by being made to pass between rollers; and though there is no mechanical analogy between that operation and his process of spinning, it is not difficult to imagine that, by reflecting upon it and placing the subject in different points of view, he might be led by it to his invention. The precise date of the discovery is not known ; but it is most probable that the idea had occurred to his mind as early as the period when Hargraves was engaged in the invention of the jenny, or almost immediately after. Not being himself a practical mechanic, Arkwright employed John Kay, a watchmaker at Warrington, to whom we shall afterwards have to refer, to assist him in the preparation of the parts of his machine. An application in 1767 to Mr Atherton of Liverpool for pecuniary assistance was unsuccessful, though he is said to have sent some workmen to assist in the construction of the machine, the first model of which was set up in the parlour of the house belonging to the Free Grammar School at Preston.

His inventions being at length brought into a pretty advanced state, Arkwright, accompanied by Kay, and a Mr Smalley of Preston, removed to Nottingham in 1768, in order to avoid the attacks of the same lawless rabble that had driven Hargraves out of Lancashire. Here his operations were at first greatly fettered by a want of capital. But Mr Strutt of Derby, a gentleman of great mechanical skill, and largely engaged in the stocking manufacture, having seen Arkwright's inventions, and satisfied himself of their extraordinary value, immediately entered, conjointly with his partner, Mr Need, into partnership with him. The command of the necessary funds being thus obtained, Arkwright erected his first mill, which was driven by horses, at Nottingham, and took out a patent for spinning by rollers in 1769. But as horsepower was found too expensive, he built a second factory, on a much larger scale, at Cromford in Derbyshire, in 1771, the machinery of which was turned by a water-wheel, after the manner of the famous silk-mill erected by Sir Thomas Lombe. Having made several additional discoveries and improvements in the processes of carding, roving, and spinning, he took out a fresh patent for the whole in 1775 ; and thus completed a series of machinery so various and complicated, yet so admirably combined and well adapted to produce the intended effect in its most perfect form, as to excite the admiration of every one capable of appreciating the ingenuity displayed and the difficulties overcome.

When the vast importance of these discoveries became generally known, it is not surprising that every effort should have been made to have the patents set aside, and Arkwright deprived of the profit and honour to be derived from them. But an attentive consideration of the various proceedings relative to this subject will show that there are no good grounds for crediting the statement made in the Court of King's Bench in 1785, and again repeated by Mr Guest in his work on the cotton manufacture, which ascribes the invention of spinning by rollers to Highs, or Hayes, from whom Arkwright is said to have learned it.

Arkwright's first patent for spinning by rollers, which is the essential part of his inventions, was obtained, as we have previously stated, in 1769; and its value and importance were no longer doubtful after the establishment of the factory at Cromford in 1771. The success which attended this novel method of spinning naturally excited the strongest desire on the part of the Lancashire manufacturers to participate in the advantages to be derived from it; and the fair presumption is that, instead of attempting clandestinely to pirate the invention, they would, had they conceived there were any good grounds to go upon, have at once contested the validity of the patent. But no such attempt was made till 1781, twelve years after the date of the first patent, and six years after the date of the second. And even then, Arkwright's opponents came forward only in consequence of his having resolved to vindicate his rights, which had begun to be invaded on all sides, by raising an action against Colonel Mordaunt for an infringement of his patent. Mordaunt was supported by a combination of manufacturers; and, as they felt the question to be of the greatest importance, it is all but impossible to suppose that anything would be omitted on their part which was conceived likely to contribute to their success. The case having been tried in the Court of King's Bench, after Trinity term, July 1781, the decision was unfavourable to Arkwright. But it is of importance to obstrve, that no attempt was made at the trial to charge him with having purloined the inventions of others, and that the verdict was given on the sole ground of the description of the machinery in the specification being obscure and indistinct. Arkwright admitted that this was partly the case; adding, however, that the obscurity had been intended only to prevent foreigners from pirating his inventions. On any other principle, indeed, his conduct would be inexplicable; for, as his inventions were fully known to hundreds of workmen in his own employment, and as he had sold the privilege of using them to many persons in different parts of the country, it is impossible to suppose that he could either have expected or intended to conceal his inventions after the expiration of his patent. In consequence of the result of this trial, Arkwright and his partners prepared a "case," setting forth the value of the inventions, and the circumstances which had led to the indistinctness complained of in the specification, which they at one time intended to lay before Parliament, as the foundation of an application for an Act for their relief. But this intention was subsequently abandoned ; and in a new trial (Arkwright v. Nightingale), which took place in the Court of Common Pleas on the 17th of February 1785, Lord Loughborough, the presiding judge, having expressed himself favourably with respect to the sufficiency of the specification, a verdict was given for Arkwright. On this, as on the former trial, nothing was stated against the originality of the invention.





In consequence of these conflicting verdicts, the whole matter was brought, by a writ of scire facias, before the Court of King's Bench, to have the validity of the patent finally settled. And it was not till this third trial, which took place before Mr Justice Buller and a special jury, on the 25th of June 1785, that Arkwright's claim to the inventions which formed the subject of the patent was disputed. To support this new allegation, Arkwright's opponents brought forward, for the first time, Highs, or Hayes, a reed-maker at Bolton. He stated that he had invented a machine for spinning by rollers previously to 1768; that he had employed the watchmaker Kay to make a model of that machine; and Kay was produced to prove that he had communicated that model to Arkwright, and that that was the real source of all his pretended inventions. Having no idea that any attempt was to be made at so late a period to overturn the patent on this new ground, Arkwright's counsel were not prepared with evidence to repel this statement; but it was stated by Mr Sergeant Adair, on a motion for a new trial on the 10th of November of the same year, that he was furnished with affidavits contradicting, in the most pointed manner, the evidence that had been given by Kay and others with respect to the originality of the invention. The court, however, refused to grant a new trial, on the ground that, whatever might be the fact as to the question of originality, the deficiency in the specification was enough to sustain the verdict. But, independently altogether of the statements made on the motion for a new trial, the improbability of the story told by Highs and Kay seems glaring and obvious. Highs states in his evidence that he had accused Arkwright of getting possession of his invention by means of Kay so early as 1769, or about that period. Where, then, it may be asked, was this Mr Highs ever since that period, and particularly during the first trial in July 1781, and the second in February 1785 Í Living in Lancashire, associating with manufacturers, and in the babit, as he declares in his evidence, of making machines for them, he could not fail to be speedily informed with respect to the vast importance and value of the invention Arkwright had purloined from him. It is impossible but he must have been acquainted with the efforts that were making by the Lancashire manufacturers to set aside the patents ; and is it to be supposed, had he really been the inventor, that he would have remained for sixteen years a passive spectator of what was going forward 1 that he would have allowed Arkwright to accumulate a princely fortune by means of his inventions while he remained in a state of poverty ? or that he would have withheld his evidence when the manufacturers attempted to wrest from Arkwright what he had so unjustly appropriated J A single hint from Highs or Kay would, had their story been well founded, have sufficed to force Arkwright to give them a share of his profits, or would have furnished the manufacturers with the means they were so anxious to obtain, of procuring the immediate dissolution of the patents. But it has never been alleged that Arkwright took any pains to conciliate these persons ; on the contrary, he treated Highs with the most perfect indifference, and not only dismissed Kay from his service, but even threatened to prosecute him on a charge of felony. The supposition that persons with so many and such overpowering temptations to speak out, and with no inducement of any sort to be silent, should have kept so important a secret for so many years is almost incredible; and it is infinitely more consistent with probability to suppose that the story of Highs and Kay had been manufactured for the occasion than that it was really true. None of Arkwright's most intimate friends ever had the slightest doubt with respect to the originality of his invention. Some of them, indeed, could speak to the circumstances from their own personal knowledge; and their testimony was uniform and consistent.

On their introduction, Arkwright's machines were regarded by the lower classes as even more adverse to their interests than those of Hargraves, and repeated attacks were made on the factories built for them. But however extraordinary it may appear, it was amongst the manufacturers that the greatest animosity existed against Arkwright; and it required all the prudence for which he was so remarkable to enable him to triumph over the powerful combination that was formed against him. At the outset of the business they unanimously refused to purchase his yarn; and when bis partners, Messrs Strutt and Need, had commenced a manufacture of calicoes, the manufacturers strenuously opposed a bill to exempt calicoes from a discriminating duty of 3d. a yard laid on them over and above the ordinary duty of 3d. by an old Act of Parliament. Luckily, however, the manufacturers failed of their object; and, in 1774, an Act of Parliament was obtained (14 Geo. III. cap. 72) for the encouragement of the cotton manufacture, in which fabrics made of cotton are declared to have been lately introduced, and are allowed to be used as " a lawful and laudable manufacture;" the duty of 6d. the square yard on such cottons as are printed or stained being at the same time reduced to 3d. But this disgraceful spirit of animosity, which must, had it been successful, have proved as injurious to the interests of the manufacturers as to those of Arkwright, did not content itself with actions in the courts of law, or a factious opposition to useful measures in Parliament, but displayed itself in a still more striking and unjustifiable manner. A large factory, erected by Arkwright at Birkacre, near Chorley, in Lancashire, was destroyed by a mob collected from the adjacent country, in the presence of a powerful body of police and military, without any one of the civil authorities requiring them to interfere to prevent so scandalous an outrage.

Fortunately, however, not for himself only, but for his country and the world, every corner of which has been benefited by his inventions, Arkwright triumphed over every opposition. The same ingenuity, skill, and good sense, which had originally enabled him to invent his j rnadune and get it introduced, enabled him to overcome the various combinations and difficulties with which he had subsequently to contend.

Though a man of great personal strength, which he is said to have displayed, when young, in election riots at Preston, Arkwright never enjoyed good health. During the whole of his memorable career of invention and discovery, he was labouring under a very severe asthmatic affection. A complication of disorders at length terminated his truly useful life in 1792, at his works at Gromford, in the sixtieth year of his age. He was high sheriff of Derbyshire in 1786 ; and, having presented a congratulatory address from the wapentake of Wirksworth to his Majesty George III., on his escape from the attempt on his life by Margaret Nicholson, received the honour of knighthood. No man ever better deserved his good fortune, or has a stronger claim on the respect and gratitude of posterity. His inventions have opened a new and boundless field of employment; and while they have conferred infinitely more real benefit on his native country than she could have derived from the absolute dominion of Mexico and Peru, they have been universally productive of wealth and enjoyment.







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