[From Samuel Smiles's Self-Help (1859). Text courtesy of Professor Professor Mitsuharu Matsuoka of Nagoya University, Japan. Translation to html and links by GPL.]

One of the first grand results of Watt's invention, — which placed an almost unlimited power at the command of the producing classes, — was the establishment of the cotton-manufacture. The person most closely identified with the foundation of this great branch of industry was unquestionably Sir Richard Arkwright, whose practical energy and sagacity were perhaps even more remarkable than his mechanical inventiveness. His originality as an inventor has indeed been called in question, like that of Watt and Stephenson.

Arkwright probably stood in the same relation to the spinning- machine that Watt did to the steam-engine and Stephenson to the locomotive. He gathered together the scattered threads of ingenuity which already existed, and wove them, after his own design, into a new and original fabric. Though Lewis Paul, of Birmingham, patented the invention of spinning by rollers thirty years before Arkwright, the machines constructed by him were so imperfect in their details, that they could not be profitably worked, and the invention was practically a failure. Another obscure mechanic, a reed-maker of Leigh, named Thomas Highs, is also said to have invented the water-frame and spinning-jenny; but they, too, proved unsuccessful.

When the demands of industry are found to press upon the resources of inventors, the same idea is usually found floating about in many minds; — such has been the case with the steam-engine, the safety- lamp, the electric telegraph, and other inventions. Many ingenious minds are found labouring in the throes of invention, until at length the master mind, the strong practical man, steps forward, and straightway delivers them of their idea, applies the principle successfully, and the thing is done. Then there is a loud outcry among all the smaller contrivers, who see themselves distanced in the race; and hence men such as Watt, Stephenson, and Arkwright, have usually to defend their reputation and their rights as practical and successful inventors.

Richard Arkwright, like most of our great mechanicians, sprang from the ranks. He was born in Preston in 1732. His parents were very poor, and he was the youngest of thirteen children. He was never at school: the only education he received he gave to himself; and to the last he was only able to write with difficulty. When a boy, he was apprenticed to a barber, and after learning the business, he set up for himself in Bolton, where he occupied an underground cellar, over which he put up the sign, "Come to the subterraneous barber — he shaves for a penny." The other barbers found their customers leaving them, and reduced their prices to his standard, when Arkwright, determined to push his trade, announced his determination to give "A clean shave for a halfpenny." After a few years he quitted his cellar, and became an itinerant dealer in hair. At that time wigs were worn, and wig-making formed an important branch of the barbering business. Arkwright went about buying hair for the wigs. He was accustomed to attend the hiring fairs throughout Lancashire resorted to by young women, for the purpose of securing their long tresses; and it is said that in negotiations of this sort he was very successful. He also dealt in a chemical hair dye, which he used adroitly, and thereby secured a considerable trade. But he does not seem, notwithstanding his pushing character, to have done more than earn a bare living.

The fashion of wig-wearing having undergone a change, distress fell upon the wig-makers; and Arkwright, being of a mechanical turn, was consequently induced to turn machine inventor or "conjurer," as the pursuit was then popularly termed. Many attempts were made about that time to invent a spinning-machine, and our barber determined to launch his little bark on the sea of invention with the rest.

Like other self-taught men of the same bias, he had already been devoting his spare time to the invention of a perpetual-motion machine; and from that the transition to a spinning-machine was easy. He followed his experiments so assiduously that he neglected his business, lost the little money he had saved, and was reduced to great poverty. His wife — for he had by this time married — was impatient at what she conceived to be a wanton waste of time and money, and in a moment of sudden wrath she seized upon and destroyed his models, hoping thus to remove the cause of the family privations. Arkwright was a stubborn and enthusiastic man, and he was provoked beyond measure by this conduct of his wife, from whom he immediately separated.

In travelling about the country, Arkwright had become acquainted with a person named Kay, a clockmaker at Warrington, who assisted him in constructing some of the parts of his perpetual-motion machinery. It is supposed that he was informed by Kay of the principle of spinning by rollers; but it is also said that the idea was first suggested to him by accidentally observing a red-hot piece of iron become elongated by passing between iron rollers.

However this may be, the idea at once took firm possession of his mind, and he proceeded to devise the process by which it was to be accomplished, Kay being able to tell him nothing on this point.

Arkwright now abandoned his business of hair collecting, and devoted himself to the perfecting of his machine, a model of which, constructed by Kay under his directions, he set up in the parlour of the Free Grammar School at Preston. Being a burgess of the town, he voted at the contested election at which General Burgoyne was returned; but such was his poverty, and such the tattered state of his dress, that a number of persons subscribed a sum sufficient to have him put in a state fit to appear in the poll-room. The exhibition of his machine in a town where so many workpeople lived by the exercise of manual labour proved a dangerous experiment; ominous growlings were heard outside the school-room from time to time, and Arkwright, — remembering the fate of Kay, who was mobbed and compelled to fly from Lancashire because of his invention of the fly-shuttle, and of poor Hargreaves, whose spinning-jenny had been pulled to pieces only a short time before by a Blackburn mob, — wisely determined on packing up his model and removing to a less dangerous locality. He went accordingly to Nottingham, where he applied to some of the local bankers for pecuniary assistance; and the Messrs. Wright consented to advance him a sum of money on condition of sharing in the profits of the invention. The machine, however, not being perfected so soon as they had anticipated, the bankers recommended Arkwright to apply to Messrs. Strutt and Need, the former of whom was the ingenious inventor and patentee of the stocking-frame. Mr. Strutt at once appreciated the merits of the invention, and a partnership was entered into with Arkwright, whose road to fortune was now clear. The patent was secured in the name of "Richard Arkwright, of Nottingham, clockmaker," and it is a circumstance worthy of note, that it was taken out in 1769, the same year in which Watt secured the patent for his steam-engine. A cotton-mill was first erected at Nottingham, driven by horses; and another was shortly after built, on a much larger scale, at Cromford, in Derbyshire, turned by a water-wheel, from which circumstance the spinning-machine came to be called the water- frame.

Arkwright's labours, however, were, comparatively speaking, only begun. He had still to perfect all the working details of his machine. It was in his hands the subject of constant modification and improvement, until eventually it was rendered practicable and profitable in an eminent degree. But success was only secured by long and patient labour: for some years, indeed, the speculation was disheartening and unprofitable, swallowing up a very large amount of capital without any result. When success began to appear more certain, then the Lancashire manufacturers fell upon Arkwright's patent to pull it in pieces, as the Cornish miners fell upon Boulton and Watt to rob them of the profits of their steam- engine. Arkwright was even denounced as the enemy of the working people; and a mill which he built near Chorley was destroyed by a mob in the presence of a strong force of police and military. The Lancashire men refused to buy his materials, though they were confessedly the best in the market. Then they refused to pay patent-right for the use of his machines, and combined to crush him in the courts of law. To the disgust of right-minded people, Arkwright's patent was upset. After the trial, when passing the hotel at which his opponents were staying, one of them said, loud enough to be heard by him, "Well, we've done the old shaver at last;" to which he coolly replied, "Never mind, I've a razor left that will shave you all." He established new mills in Lancashire, Derbyshire, and at New Lanark, in Scotland. The mills at Cromford also came into his hands at the expiry of his partnership with Strutt, and the amount and the excellence of his products were such, that in a short time he obtained so complete a control of the trade, that the prices were fixed by him, and he governed the main operations of the other cotton-spinners.

Arkwright was a man of great force of character, indomitable courage, much worldly shrewdness, with a business faculty almost amounting to genius. At one period his time was engrossed by severe and continuous labour, occasioned by the organising and conducting of his numerous manufactories, sometimes from four in the morning till nine at night. At fifty years of age he set to work to learn English grammar, and improve himself in writing and orthography. After overcoming every obstacle, he had the satisfaction of reaping the reward of his enterprise. Eighteen years after he had constructed his first machine, he rose to such estimation in Derbyshire that he was appointed High Sheriff of the county, and shortly after George III. conferred upon him the honour of knighthood. He died in 1792. Be it for good or for evil, Arkwright was the founder in England of the modern factory system, a branch of industry which has unquestionably proved a source of immense wealth to individuals and to the nation.


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Last modified 22 December 2007