Friday, January 16, 2015

Samuel Slater: The Father of American Industrial Revolution

Samuel Slater
Samuel Slater was born in June 9, 1768 in Belper, Derbyshire, England. He came from a prosperous farming family. At a young age, he did not show huge enthusiasm towards becoming a farmer. Instead, he showed skills in mechanics and arithmetic at a young age.

Around Slater, England and, later, the world was changing. The Industrial Revolution gained momentum. Innovations in the textile industry led to mechanization and the start of factory system. Water-frame powering spinning mills began to appear. At its forefront were the inventors Jedediah Strutt and Richard Arkwright. In 1776, Jedediah Strutt and Richard Arkwright parted ways. Strutt took over control of the textile mill in Belper.

At that mill where Slater would found himself in 1782. Aged 14, he began to work as an apprentice, working in the spinning jennies. From his job, he enhance his mechanical skills and learned the machines work and its structure. Later on, he used his mechanical knowledge to develop a new method of winding yarn onto spindles. Exemplifying his inventive mind and mechanical skills, Strutt made Slater the supervisor of the whole Belper mill.

From becoming the supervisor of the mill, Slater gained management experience, as well as confidence. After years of working, by the 1780’s, Slater had the thought of making his own factory. However, he had a problem. First, the textile industry was already saturated with numerous textile manufacturers. Competition was intense. Second, he did not possessed the capital to build his own textile mill. And then something stroked him. Alongside with countless Europeans, he saw opportunity of wealth as well as use of his talent at the newly independent United States of America.

The journey to the United States, however, was not easy. Men with technical and mechanical skills and experience such as Slater were banned from migrating to other countries. The main reason was industrial secrecy. Great Britain wanted to keep a comparative advantage in the textile market by keeping its new industrial process and machines under British control. Exports of spinning jennies or its blueprints as well as migration of skilled individuals were forbidden by law. Nevertheless, Slater was determined. In 1789, he went to London and boarded a ship on the way to New World. Legends suggested that in order to avoid the migration ban, Slater disguised himself as a lowly farm laborer.

With the stroke of luck, he succeeded and in 1789, he arrived in New York. Immediately, he found employment at the New York Manufacturing Company. But, his job in the company did not satisfy him. He wasn’t given the opportunity to display his knowledge and talent. By this time, Slater memorized the design of the British spinning jennies in his memory. But he could not build one or operate one in New York. First, he wasn’t given the capital. Second, quality of the equipment were low quality. And lastly, the rivers in the area were weak and could not spin the water frame; hence, power the machine. And so, he looked for another opportunity elsewhere. Slater did not needed to look very far away. In Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the Almy and Brown Company challenged anyone to fix the textile mill that they operated. Slater saw his chanced and wrote to Moses Brown accepting the challenge. Slater went to Rhode Island and assessed the damage. At the end of his assessment, he concluded that the mill was beyond repair but he had a solution. He proposed he could built a new spinning jenny, similar to that Arkwright invented and he operated. Moses Brown agreed and finance Slater’s proposal.

In 1790, Slater completed his task. The new textile mill began operation. Sometime later, Almy and Brown decided to make Slater a partner. Then on, Slater became involved in the management of the mill.

Slater emulated the system that operated back in England. Around his textile mill a company or factory village was built. It was complete with houses, schools, and church. Slater hired families to work in his mills. Children worked the machines, women cleaned the cotton, and the men weaved with handlooms. The operation in Pawtucket, however, was not without problems. There was a shortage of good quality cotton. Also, his machines breakdown easily and caused decrease in production. Nevertheless, even with problems, the company prospered.

It profit so much that in 1793, Almy, Brown, and Slater decided to expand operations near the Blackstone River. There, they built a dam that would power the mills in their new factory. The new factory had 3 carders, 2 spinning frames, and 72 spindles. The new factory that would be known as the Old Slater Mill was also modeled after the previous mill. It hired families and had a village for its workers. Later on, the company solved the problems of shortage of low quality cotton when the south began to cultivate cotton extensively. Also, the invention of the cotton gin gave rise to high cotton production in the South, which meant numerous amount of supply for their company.

In 1798, Slater parted ways with Brown and Almy. With his earnings, he build his own factory in Massachusetts and began operation in 1801. Like the factories previously, they operated the same way as those in England. Families were hired. Company villages erected. Through the following years, Slater became involved in spreading the textile mill technology he knew across the north. He helped in building mills in Connecticut and New Hampshire. By 1828, he was part of 13 different partnership.

Samuel Slater passed away in 1835. But his legacy continued. With the knowledge he brought in the United States, he started an industrial revolution in the country. The nation suddenly found itself with factories capable of matching that of its rival, Great Britain. He became progenitor of the industrial process and factory system that would be used in the United States for the following decades and beyond. Hence, he was honored by many as the Father of American Industrial Revolution.

See also:

Tucker, Spencer (ed.). The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Califronia: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2012.

“Samuel Slater Facts.” Your Dictionary. Accessed January 16, 2015.

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