Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Francis Cabot Lowell: From Industrial Espionage to Industrial Revolution

An industrial revolution allowed the United States to propel itself to the top of the world. It owed it much to the ingenuity and skills of its many mechanics and inventors that developed new machines and system to manufacture numerous goods in a short period of time. Francis Cabot Lowell (April 7, 1775 – August 10, 1817) became one of these men who ushered in the industrial revolution to the United States. Through espionage, mimicry, and developing, Lowell developed a new system of production and labor that led to the industrialization of the United States.

Francis Cabot Lowell – born on April 7, 1775 – he came from a modest family living in Bewburyport, Massachusetts. His family earned enough to send him to Harvard when the young Francis Lowell aged 14. Eventually, Lowell graduated in 1793.

After graduating, he began his business career. He entered the trading business. He earned a modest wealth. However, it all ended in 1807 when the Embargo Act limited the trade volume in the Atlantic Ocean. Years later, he decided to leave the trading business. But he learned from trading that England had begun to develop a capacity to produce large quantities of textile. Stories of factories and wealth through the textile industry urged him to go to England and study it. He went to England with the intention of copying the techniques and know-how of the British and then applying it to the United States.

Intentional or unintentional, he arrived in England as an industrial spy. He visited centers of the British textile industry in East Midlands and also Lancashire. There, he saw the machines used by the British in that propelled them into an industrialized country. Lowell then memorized the designs of the looms and other machines that he saw. After this trips, he then secluded himself into his room and draw the machines from his memory. Besides the machines that the Britain used, he also observed the labor condition that prevailed. He saw how female children and other workers toiled for long owners in harsh working conditions. From his observations in England complete, Lowell returned to the United States in 1813.

He then looked for a way in order to apply his new knowledge in America. He first sought the help of a mechanic, Paul Moody, in order to reproduce the same textile mills that he saw in England. In addition, they did not just copied but also improved. Following the recreation of the machinery, capital became the next requirement that Lowell needed to address in order to establish his textile factory. In 1813, he found a way to form the capital required. He enlisted the help of his brother-in-law, Patrick Stacy Jackson. Both of them looked for investors and sold them shares of the company. Hence, they used the concept of joint-stock ownership. Under this concept, investors provided a particular amount of money in exchange for a share of profit and ownership. The amount of which became based from the endowment.

The strategy worked and in 1814, Lowell opened his textile factory. Located alongside the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts, Lowell named it as the Boston Manufacturing Company. Its capital amounted to about $300,000.

Besides the machinery, a unique characteristic of the factory lay in its so-called “Lowell System”. Lowell used the same Arkwright System in England but modified it in order to make it more humane. Unlike the Arkwright System that hired children that aged as young as 10, Lowell’s system employed single women from the ages 15 to 35. From this, it also differentiated from the Arkwright system that allowed married women to work. Lowell paid his workers from $2 to $3.25 for fourteen-hours six days work in a week. Workers lived in boarding houses and lodgings built around the factory, hence, a company town developed. The management took $1.25 from the salaries of its workers as rent for the housing. Staying in the company housing felt like in a convent. An old woman supervised each dorm and assured order and that the women conducted themselves according to the strict code of ethics enforced by Lowell. In addition to lodgings, Lowell also introduced education and religious services to his workers living in the housings. The education given provided the workers technical and vocational skill that they would be used once they pass the age of 30 and they had to leave the company. The housing, the opportunity, and education that Lowell provided made the worker loyal to him and his company. Although it remained a low quality for working condition, it still showed much better condition than those in the other side of the Atlantic.

Lowell’s company flourished. However, it still faced though competition from textile imports from Great Britain. In 1816, Lowell, along with other textile manufacturers, lobbied for protection. They managed to enlist the support of Senators John Calhoun and William Lowndes. The two supported the passing of the Tariffs of 1816, which placed an ad valorem tax to imported wool and cotton. It then provided a protection for domestic textile manufacturers to flourish.
But sadly, Lowell did not lived to see his company grow. On August 10, 1817, Francis Cabot Lowell passed away at the young age of 42. He left a lasting mark in the start of the industrial revolution in the United States, alongside with other inventors like Eli Whitney and Samuel Slater. His factory town in Waltham was then renamed to Lowell, in honor of his name. Francis Cabot Lowell started with an act of industrial espionage and ended with igniting of the industrial revolution in America.

See also:
Eli Whitney

Ingham, J. Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders H-M. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Reef, C. American Experience: Working in America. New York: Facts on File, 2007.

Tucker, S. (ed.). The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812: A Political, Social, and Military History. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2012.

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