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Sir Richard ArkwrightSir Richard Arkwright

inventor of a water-powered spinning machine

Richard Arkwright was born in Preston, England, in 1732, the son of a tailor. His family could not afford to send him to school, so he was taught to read and write by a cousin. In 1755, he opened a barber shop in Bolton. At the age of 30 he bought a tavern in Bolton. He also developed a method of dyeing hair, which he sold to wigmakers. It was while travelling across northwestern England on hair-buying and -selling trips that he heard about the race to perfect a practical spinning machine.

Arkwright's spinning machineIn 1768, working with clockmaker John Kay, Arkwright developed a spinning machine (right) that was powered by water. Sets of rollers turning at different speeds drew cotton from the carding machine, which straightened out the fibers. Spindles then twisted the cotton into hard, firm, and rather coarse thread. In 1769, after patenting his spinning machine, Arkwright and two manufacturers set up a small horse-powered mill in Preston. He later built a water-powered mill in Derbyshire. Over the subsequent years he built several cotton mills that combined the various manufacturing processes of machine carding, drawing, roving, and spinning in one operation.

In 1781, Arkwright's patent was challenged and finally canceled on the grounds of previous inventions and deliberately vague and confusing specifications in his patent application. It is now generally agreed that while Arkwright knew of earlier work on spinning machines, he added mechanical details that actually made such a machine practical. Despite the loss of his patent, Arkwright's experience and business ability helped him keep his advantage. In 1785 Arkwright was the first to drive a cotton mill by means of the new steam engine perfected by James Watt. He was knighted in 1786, and was a wealthy man when he died, in 1792.

James Watt

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This page was last updated on January 14, 2017.