Sir Richard Arkwright

The English inventor and industrialist Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) developed several inventions which mechanized the making of yarn and thread for the textile industry. He also helped to create the factory system of manufacture.

Richard Arkwright was born on Dec. 23, 1732, in Preston, Lancashire, England. Little is known of his early life except that he was from a large family of humble origin and obtained only the rudiments of an education. He was apprenticed to a barber in Preston, and when about 18 he set up on his own in Bolton, a textile town in Lancashire.

Sometime in the 1760s Arkwright began working on a mechanical device for spinning cotton thread, the spinning frame, which he patented in 1769. Problems still remained: the raw cotton had to be prepared for the invention by a hand process, and the invention had to be made practical and commercially successful. For this he needed funds and a mill where he could install the frame.

Probably for this reason in 1771 he moved to Nottingham, where a highly specialized kind of weaving, that of stockings, had already been fairly well mechanized. There Arkwright, whose inventions had reduced him to poverty, found a partner who supported his work and backed the construction of a mill run by waterpower (hence the later name of water frame).

Arkwright found that he could successfully use his thread for stockings and also as the warp, or longitudinal threads, in an ordinary loom onto which the weft, or cross threads, were woven. Heretofore, cotton thread had been used for the weft, but only linen threads had been strong enough for the warp. Now a textile made solely of cotton could be produced in England, and it eventually became one of the country's chief exports.

The production of thread was further improved in 1775 by Arkwright's patenting a practically continuous method which prepared the raw cotton for spinning. Apart from a completely mechanical loom, Arkwright had thus eliminated all the major obstacles to producing cotton cloth by machine.

Because thread production was now completely mechanized, all the hitherto separate operations could be coordinated and carried out under one roof, in a mill, or, as it was increasingly called, a factory. Arkwright paid as careful attention to the mill's operation as he did to his inventions. It was typical of his aggressive entrepreneurship that he was one of the first to apply the steam engine to his mills. While such a concentration of machines, driven by a prime mover, was not a new invention, Arkwright's rationalization of the factory system was nevertheless to become one of the most characteristic features of the industrial revolution.

Wealth and honors, including the bestowal of knighthood, came to him in the 1780s. He died in Nottingham on Aug. 3, 1792.


Further Reading on Sir Richard Arkwright

Two works have been written on Arkwright's relations with associates: George Unwin, Samuel Oldknow and the Arkwrights (1924), and R. S. Fitton and A. P. Wadsworth, The Strutts and the Arkwrights, 1758-1830 (1958). Supplementary accounts of Arkwright's work may be found in T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution: 1760-1830 (1948; rev. ed. 1964), and in Abbott Payson Usher's "The Textile Industry, 1750-1830," in Melvin Kranzberg and Carroll W. Pursell, Jr., eds., Technology in Western Civilization, vol. 1 (1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Fitton, R. S., The Arkwrights: spinners of fortune, Manchester, UK; New York: Manchester University Press; New York, NY, USA: Distributed exclusively in the USA and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1989.