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Sir Richard Arkwright

Sir Richard Arkwright

Sir Richard Arkwright (Old Style 23 December 1732 New Style 3 January 1733 – 3 August 1792), was an Englishman who, although the patents were eventually overturned, is often credited for inventing the spinning frame — later renamed the water frame following the transition to water power. He also patented a carding engine, so could convert raw cotton into yarn. A self-made man, he was a leading entrepreneur of the Industrial Revolution. Arkwright's achievement was to combine power, machinery, semi-skilled labour, and a new raw material (cotton) to create, more than a century before Ford, mass produced yarn. His skills of organization made him more than anyone else, the creator of the modern factory system, especially in his mill at Cromford.

Arkwright, the youngest of thirteen children, was born in 1732 in Preston, Lancashire, England. His parents, Sarah and Thomas, were very poor and could not afford to send him to school and instead arranged for him to be taught to read and write by his cousin Ellen. Thomas Arkwright was a tailor in Preston. Richard, however, was apprenticed to a Mr. Nicholson, a barber at nearby Kirkham. Richard, therefore, began his working life as a barber and wig-maker, setting up a shop at Churchgate in Bolton in the early 1750s. It was here that he invented a waterproof dye for use on the in fashion 'periwinkles' (wigs) of the time, the income from which later facilitated his financing of prototype cotton machinery.

Arkwright married his first wife, Patience Holt, in 1755. They had a son, Richard Arkwright Junior, who was born the same year. In 1756, Patience died of unspecified causes. Arkwright later married Margaret Biggins in 1761. They had three children, of whom only Susanna survived to adulthood. It was only after the death of his first wife that he became an entrepreneur.

Water frame

On his own Arkwright took an interest in spinning and carding machinery that turned raw cotton into thread. In 1768 he and John Kay, a clockmaker, relocated to the textile centre of Nottingham. In 1769 he patented the water-frame, a machine which produced a strong twist for warps, substituting wooden and metal cylinders for human fingers. This made possible inexpensive yarns to manufacture cheap calicoes, on which the subsequent great expansion of the cotton industry was based.

Carding engine

Lewis Paul had invented a machine for carding in 1748. Richard Arkwright made improvements to this machine and in 1775 took out a patent for a new Carding Engine, which converted raw cotton buds into a continuous shank of cotton fibres which could then be spun into yarn. Arkwright and John Smalley set up a small horse-driven factory at Nottingham. Needing more capital to expand, Arkwright partnered with Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need, wealthy hosiery manufacturers, who were nonconformists. In 1771 the partners built the world's first water-powered mill at Cromford, which had water power and skilled labour. Arkwright spent Ł12,000 perfecting his machine which contained the "crank and comb" for removing the cotton web off carding engines. Arkwright had mechanized all the preparatory and spinning processes, and he began to establish water-powered cotton mills even as far away as Scotland. His success encouraged many others to copy him, so he had great difficulty in enforcing the patent he was granted in 1775. His spinning frame was a significant technical advance over the spinning jenny of James Hargreaves.

After this, Arkwright returned to his home county and took up the lease of the Birkacre mill at Chorley, a catalyst for the town's growth to becoming one of the most important and industrialized towns of the Industrial Revolution.

By 1774 the firm employed 600 workers; in the next five years it expanded to new locations. He was invited to Scotland where he helped establish the cotton industry. A large new mill at Birkacre, Lancashire, was destroyed, however, in the anti-machinery riots in 1779. Arkwright in 1775 obtained for a grand patent covering many processes that he hoped would give him monopoly power over the fast-growing industry, but Lancashire opinion was bitterly hostile to exclusive patents; in 1781 Arkwright tried and failed to uphold his monopolistic 1775 patent. The case dragged on in court for years but was finally settled against him in 1785, on the grounds that his specifications were deficient and that he had borrowed his ideas from Leigh reed-maker Thomas Highs. The story is that clock-maker Kay, who had been commissioned by Highs to make a working metal model of Highs's invention, had given the design to Arkwright, who formed a partnership with him.It was also said that he was an arrogant man.

In 1777 he leased the Haarlem Mill in Wirksworth, Derbyshire where he installed the first steam engine to be used in a cotton mill, though this was used to replenish the millpond that drove the mill's waterwheel, rather than to drive the machinery directly.

Arkwright also created another factory, Masson Mill. The factory was made from red brick, which was expensive at the time. In the mid 1780s, Arkwright lost many of his patents when courts ruled them to be essentially copies of earlier work. Despite this, he was knighted in 1786 and was High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1787.

Aggressive and self-sufficient, Arkwright proved a difficult man to work with. He bought out all his partners and went on to build factories at Manchester, Matlock, Bath, New Lanark (in partnership with David Dale) and elsewhere. Unlike most entrepreneurs, who were nonconformist, he attended the Church of England.


Arkwright's achievements were widely recognized; he served as high sheriff of Derbyshire and was knighted in 1786. Much of his fortune derived from licensing his intellectual rights; about 30,000 people were employed in 1785 in factories using Arkwright's patents. He died at Willersley Castle, the mansion he had built overlooking his Cromford mills, on 3 August 1792, aged 59, leaving a fortune of Ł500,000. He was buried at St. Giles Church in Matlock. His remains were later moved to St. Mary's Church in Cromford.[4][5]

The Arkwright Society, set up after the two hundredth anniversary of Cromford Mill, now owns the site and works to preserve the industrial heritage of the area.


Richard himself had previously assisted Thomas Highs, and there is strong evidence to support the claim that it was Highs, and not Arkwright, who invented the spinning frame. However, Highs was unable to patent or develop the idea for lack of finance. Highs, who was also credited with inventing a Spinning Jenny several years before James Hargreaves produced his, probably got the idea for the spinning frame from the work of John Wyatt and Lewis Paul in the 1730s and 40s.

The machine used a succession of uneven rollers rotating at increasingly higher speeds to draw out the roving, before applying the twist via a bobbin-and-flyer mechanism. It could make cotton thread thin and strong enough for the warp, or long threads, of cloth. Arkwright moved to Nottingham, formed a partnership with local businessmen Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need, and set up a mill powered by horses. But in 1771, he converted to water power and built a new mill in the Derbyshire village of Cromford.

It soon became apparent that small town would not be able to provide enough workers for his mill. So he built a large number of cottages near the mill and imported workers from outside the area. He also built the Greyhound public house (Greyhound Hotel) which still stands in Cromford market square. The hotel is planned to become a museum of Richard Arkwright. In 1776 he purchased lands in Cromford,[6] and in 1788 lands in Willersley, the vendor on both occasions being Peter Nightingale, the great-uncle of Florence Nightingale.

In 1775, Arkwright took out a patent for a carding machine, the first stage in the spinning process, replacing the hand-carding that the factory used until then. The high royalties that he charged on both inventions encouraged others to challenge his patents in court. The second patent was overturned, but not before he had become a very rich man.

His main contribution was not so much the inventions as the highly disciplined and profitable factory system he set up, which was widely followed. There were two thirteen-hour shifts per day including an overlap. Bells rang at 5 am and 5 pm and the gates were shut precisely at 6 am and 6 pm. Anyone who was late not only could not work that day but lost an extra day's pay. Whole families were employed, with large numbers of children from the age of seven, although this was increased to ten by the time Richard handed the business over to his son.

Arkwright encouraged weavers with large families to move to Cromford. He allowed them a week’s holiday a year, but on condition that they could not leave the village. Later in life, he himself taught the simple branches of education. Arkwright was later known as 'the Father of the Industrial Revolution'.

Patent problems

In 1781, Arkwright went to court to protect his patents, but the move rebounded when they were overturned. Four years later, after seeing his patents restored temporarily, in another, definitive court battle, Thomas Highs, a remorseful John Kay, Kay's wife and the widow of James Hargreaves all testified that Arkwright had stolen their inventions. The court agreed: Arkwright's patents were finally laid aside.

Sir Richard Arkwright lived at Rock House in Cromford, opposite his original mill. In 1788 he purchased an estate from Florence Nightingale’s father, William, for Ł20,000 and set about building Willersley Castle for himself and his family. However just as the building was completed it was destroyed by fire, and Arkwright was forced to wait a further two years whilst it was rebuilt. He died aged 59 in 1792, never having lived in the castle, which was only completed after his death. Willersley Castle is now a hotel owned by the Christian Guild company.[7]

Following is an obituary for Richard Arkwright written a few days after his death.

The youngest of thirteen children, Sir Richard Arkwright was born in Preston on 23 December 1732. Arkwright will be remembered by most for his reformation of the way that people work. No one has had greater influence and indeed revolutionized industry than Sir Richard Arkwright. At 59 years of age, Arkwright died one of the richest men in England. It is estimated that his fortune amounted to something in the region of Ł500,000. In 1762 Arkwright started a wig-making business. This involved him traveling the country collecting people's discarded hair. While on his travels, Arkwright heard about the attempts being made to produce new machines for the textile industry. Arkwright also met John Kay, a clockmaker from Warrington, who had been busy for some time trying to produce a new spinning-machine with another man, Thomas Highs of Leigh. Kay and Highs had run out of money and had been forced to abandon the project. To Arkwright’s amazement, John Kay invited him to help produce this remarkable new machine. Arkwright accepted Kay’s offer and employed a local craftsman, and miraculously, it wasn’t long until the four actually produced the brand new “Spinning Frame”. Arkwright patented this and his “Water Frame” in 1769, which caused great rivalry between him and other cotton spinning entrepreneurs. In 1771 Arkwright invented the world’s first water powered cotton mill at Cressbrook in Derbyshire. A series of court cases followed as Arkwright attempted to prosecute rivals who had infringed his patents, culminating in an action brought by The Crown in 1785. Surely, Arkwright’s contribution to the cotton industry entitles him to be referred to the father of the industrial revolution and will always be remembered for his great, albeit stolen, inventions.

There is an elementary school named after Arkwright in Glendale, NY

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