Richard Arkwright - The Father of the Modern Factory System

Richard Arkwright Portrait
Richard Arkwright did not only made cotton one of the main Britain's exports but he also paved the way to the Industrial Revolution and the modern factory system. In his water-powered cotton mill at Cromford and elsewhere in England and Scotland, Arkwright introduced completely mechanized manufacturing and highly efficient labor organization which remain the core of modern factories to the present-day.

Table of Contents

Early Life

Richard Arkwright was born as the 13th child to a family of humble origin on December 23, 1732, in Preston, Lancashire, England. Little is known about his early life except that his parents did not have the money to send him to school and that he was taught to read and write by his cousin. He was apprenticed as a barber in Preston and about 1750, he moved to the town of Bolton where he opened his own barber shop that was doing quite well. However, he soon experienced a personal tragedy. His first wife, Patience Holt whom he married in 1755 and who bore him a son, Richard Arkwright Junior died only one year after they got married. He remarried with Margaret Biggins in 1761, got into wig-making business and soon become a relatively successful entrepreneur.

Invention of the Water Frame

By the early 1760s, Arkwright become interested into cotton production machinery which progressed tremendously by that time. However, none of the solutions was suitable for industrial cotton production. For example, Lewis Paul’s carding machine (invented in 1748) required a lot of human labor, while James Hargreaves’s spinning Jenny (invented in 1764) was suitable to produce only the weaker thread or the woof. Arkwright sensed the opportunity and started working on improvement of the machine for spinning. Together with a clockmaker, John Kay he managed to create the so-called water frame which produced a stronger length-wise thread – the warp. Arkwright patented his spinning machine in 1769 but his collaboration with Kay would later cause him problems with his patents.

First Water-Powered Cotton Mill at Cromford

By the time Arkwright patented the water frame, he used almost all his savings. He found two business partners in Nottingham where they built a small horse-powered mill in 1769. But Arkwright soon became convinced that horse power is not the best solution and turned his attention to water power. In 1771, he moved to Cromford and together Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need built the Cromford Mill which was not only the first successful water-powered cotton mill but it is also considered to be the first modern factory in the world. By 1775, Arkwright perfected cotton production process and patented improved carding machine which along with other inventions enabled him to increase the production of high quality thread at a lower cost. Soon, he set up new mills throughout Britain and became one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution.

Struggle over Patents

As Arkwright’s fortune rose, so did the accusations of him borrowing and even stealing other people’s inventions. John Kay, the clockmaker who helped him make the water frame previously worked for Thomas Highs, an inventor who also experimented with textile machinery and accused Arkwright and Kay of using his designs to make the water frame. Although Highs’s accusations were never proven, the court withdrew Arkwright’s patent for water frame as well as the patent for his carding machine in 1785. However, he had already established himself in the cotton industry, while his achievements were formally recognized in 1786 when he was knighted by King George III.

Death and Legacy

Richard Arkwright died a wealthy man on August 3, 1792. Although his inventor status remains a matter of debate, there is no doubt about his contribution to the Industrial Revolution in Europe as well as in America. Samuel Slater (1768-1835), an apprentice of Arkwright’s business partner Jedediah Strutt introduced the Arkwright’s manufacturing system to America. He built a replicated water-powered cotton mill in Rhode Island which was a major step forward in industrialization of the United States. For his contribution to the Industrial Revolution in America, President Andrew Jackson named Slater the father of the American manufactures. The credit, however, should perhaps be given to Richard Arkwright whose manufacturing model Slater brought to the United States.