Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Richard Arkwright: Father of the Factory System

Richard Arkwright
Factories build the modern world. It is from these establishments where many of our needs and wants are built. From our pillows, to our toothpaste, to our cellphones and cars, all of these are built in a factory. The start of the factory system was said to have begun in England during the 18th century, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Richard Arkwright was said to be the man responsible for starting the modern factory system. He was a self-made man. He was born to a very poor family. But with hard work and perseverance, he worked his way up to become one of the wealthiest man in England and a pioneer to the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Richard Arkwright was born to poverty. He was born on December 23, 1732.  His family lived in the textile region of Preston, Lancashire. He was youngest of the thirteen siblings. His   educational attainment was minimal, only having primary schooling in a nearby public school. His knowledge of writing and reading came from his relatives. Later on, he entered as an apprentice to a barber. He learned skills such as pulling out teeth, shaving hair, and even probably surgery. Eventually, after few years, he finished his apprenticeship and moved to Bolton to become a traveling merchant and wig maker. He buy human hair from poverty stricken women and then dyed the hair by himself. Afterwards, he made it into colorful wigs and sold it.

While travelling, he noticed the expanding industry of textile. He saw that there was a problem in the industry. He noticed that the demand for spun cotton was high, however, a supply crisis existed. Spinning of cotton was difficult. Hand spun cotton were low quality, unequal, and difficult to use. The only solution possible was to mechanize the process.

During the 1760’s, he moved back to Preston and began to experiment to build a mechanical machine to spin cotton evenly, quickly, and cheaply. He enlisted the help of a clock maker named John Kay. Together, they work discretely to create his machine. Eventually, there numerous trial and errors. After many frustrations, On January 1768, Kay and Arkwright successfully built there first and successful device. The machine was later called the water frame. The machine was powered by a wheel, first hand crank, but later changed to flowing water. The force from the moving wheel moves the device to spin cotton into threads.

The design of Arkwright’s device, however, was not something original. It was a development of other existing device, such as the spinning jenny of John Hargreaves. He they only added some inputs in order to improve and develop the designs. Later on, the issue of originality would haunt Arkwright at the time of his heights.

On April of 1768, Arkwright decided to move out of Preston, Lancashire to the city Nottingham. He decided that his first production of cotton thread would be in Nottingham because of fear. The inventor of spinning jenny, John Hargreaves, was attacked by angry weavers that were unemployed by the machine. Fearing of the same reactions because of his device, Arkwright move out of Lancashire and pursue success in Nottingham.

To establish a cotton thread factory, he needed some investors. He found them in form of two gentlemen. He entered to a partnership with stocking manufacturers, Samuel Need and Jedediah Strutt. When, in 1769, the patent for the water frame of Arkwright was approved, they began to build their first factory. His water frame was not, however, powered by water, by horses moving in circle.

However, the horse driven machine did not satisfied Arkwright. To him, the horse driven machine cost too much both in time and money. They had to pay for the care of horse. In addition, the performance of the machine was based on the speed and energy of the horse themselves. Thus, profits were not that large for them to keep. Arkwright then looked for a solution.

The solution to Arkwright’s problem arrived in form of an isolated area. He found the area of Cromford to be suitable for his factory. The placed was perfect in the eyes of Arkwright because in the area, there laid a Derwent River. The river was perfect for Arkwright’s water frame due to its good water current and its warm waters. The warm waters of the river meant that in winter, the river won’t freeze and the machines could world throughout the whole year. However, for others, the area that Arkwright saw was terrible. The area was isolated. It has no roads or communication that connect the area to nearby towns and markets.  But, Arkwright managed to persuade his investors, Strutt and Need, to finance the construction of his factory. The factory had a huge will beside it, and was tasked to power the looms. The giant wheel in the side looked similar to the waterwheels besides flour mill. Thus, these types of factories were called textile mills.

His Cromford Factory was said to be the first modern factory. Numerous artisans or process of production were placed under one roof. Raw materials entered the factory, it came out processed under the form of textile and thread. A system of mass production was once again recreated in his buildings.

After the construction was finish, production of cotton thread began. The problem of workers was solved after they built a village of small huts for families of workers to live on. To connect the factory to villages and markets, he ordered the construction of roads. The first factory was successful. So successful that in 1773, he was able to expand by building another workshop in Derby that produce Calico or textile made of cotton. In the following year, another factory was built in Chorley.

Another impediment to Arkwright’s rise was government policy. Majority of weaver in England produced wool cloth. When India became part of the empire, the vast fledgling cotton products of India threatened the domestic weavers. As a result taxes on goods made of cotton was doubled. High taxes on goods could resulted to the sluggish production of cotton manufacturers in England, including Arkwright. In 1774, he petitioned the Parliament to repeal the policy. Opposition from the local weavers were strong. But the Parliament listened to Arkwright, and the Calico Act of 1774, which promote the development of local cotton industry was passed.

When everything looked bright, new problems emerged. When the Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies in the Americas were proclaimed in 1776, the American Revolution War began. It was eight grueling years for both sides. Britain entered to a recession during the period of the war from 1776 up to 1781. During recession, unemployment was never an option. The machines of Arkwright then became a focus of anger for many unemployed weavers.

The anger of weavers laid on the employment system of Arkwright and other mechanized manufacturers of cotton. Experienced, and skilled weavers were expensive to be paid. And for Arkwright, it was not an option. He wanted to maximize profits. Because the machines would do mostly the painstaking work, it was easy to hire unskilled laborers. Also, to further hurt the weavers, most of the jobs in the mills were given to children. Children salary were much lower than the grownups. Thus child labor became prominent in this factories. Children, as young as 6, were subjected to harsh working conditions and 13 hours of work, from 6am to 7pm. In addition to the machines and children, another issue that weaver grieved was loosing of sales. Because of mass production by the textile mills, prices became lower; and hand crafted made textile became uncompetitive in the market. Many weavers were driven out of work or livelihood, one example affected by this was the family of the future American Industrialist, Andrew Carnegie. Because of competition, machines, and children, many weaver loathed Arkwright’s factory.

Angry weavers did wreaked havoc to Arkwright’s enterprise. Some of his factories and workshops were destroyed. His largest factory in Birkacre was destroyed by weavers. His most modern mill in Chorley was also ruined by weavers.

But even with the setbacks brought by the weavers, Arkwright continued to expand his business. During the same period of the American Revolutionary War, Arkwright build more factories in many places. He began to encroach the area of Lancashire, once feared by him due to the backlash. He also began to build new facilities in the Midland Regions of Britain. He also established textile mills in Manchester.

In 1781, Samuel Need, one of his first two investors, died. Strutt doubted Arkwright’s rapid expansion of the business. So in 1781, Strutt left the enterprise with Arkwright.

By 1781, Arkwright was a very wealthy man.  His main source of wealth was his production of cotton textile from his factories. Besides production of textile, another source of income for Arkwright was from the licenses he sold to numerous businessmen. Royalties from this manufacturers enriched him more; especially, when he also patented most of the important processes in making calico textile and cotton threads in 1775.

His use of patent to earn more also earned him a lot of enemies. His enemies, who were tired of paying royalties and angered by Arkwright’s patent of the production process, filed numerous lawsuit against his monopolistic action. In 1781, Arkwright lose the battle for the patenting of the production process and the patent was revoked. Court battles, however, continued after 1781. In 1783, his patent for the water frame expired. This meant that royalties would no longer be required to be paid to Arkwright. Arkwright, on the other hand, overstep his desire for more riches. From 1783 to 1785, he entered to numerous court battle against his moved to extend his patent for water frame.

In 1785, the lawsuits ended with his defeat. The prosecutors found that his design for the water frame was not original. The witness to the lack of originality of Arkwright was his companion in the designing of the water frame, John Kay. Kay stated to the court that they copied designs from some inventors including John Hargreaves and his spinning jenny. In the end the court decided that Arkwright did not deserve the patent and his request for extension was rejected.

Defeated in the court, he compensated for the loss of royalties by expanding his business further and investing to other cotton manufacturers. In 1783, he build a new mill in Masson, Matlock Bath in Derbyshire and in the following year, he built two more in Perthshire and Ayrshire. He also began to establish mills in Scotland.  In 1783, he financed the establishment of a factory of a muslin manufacturer Samuel Oldknow. In 1784, he financed another manufacturer, David Dale, to build a facility in New Lanark. In 1790, he built a factory in Nottingham with him looms power no longer by water, but by steam. His began to use Watt and Boulton engine to power his machines.

His achievements for the past three decade was admired by many. Arkwright was known to have work hardly from 6am of the morning up to 9pm of the evening. The King also took notice of Arkwright’s hard work and progress and in 1786 decided to Knight him. In the following year, he was made High Sheriff of Derbyshire.

In 1792, Richard Arkwright, the father of modern factory system, died due to his lifetime asthma problems. His life works change England and the world forever. Quantifiably, because of his works, England was able to process cotton to thread from 8 million pounds in 1770’s, it increase more than fourfold by 1790’s having the capacity to process 37 million pounds. Richard Arkwright left England in the verge of the Industrial Revolution. Without Arkwright, the industrial revolution, and the modern factory system that build many of our goods would be impossible.

See also:
Cyrus McCormick: Inventor, Businessman
Eli Whitney: The Cotton Gin and Interchangeable Parts
John Cadbury: The Sweet Legacy


Magili, F. (ed.). Dictionary of World Biography: The 17th and 18th Century. New York: Routledge, 1999. 

McNeese, T. History of Civilization: The Industrial Revolution. Missouri: Milliken Publishing Company, 2000. 

Thackeray, F. & John Findling (eds.). Events that Formed the Modern World: From The European Renaissance to the War on Terror. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2012. 

“Richard Arkwright.” History. Accessed April 2, 2014.

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