Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cartwright, Edmund

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CARTWRIGHT, EDMUND, D.D. (1743–1823), the reputed inventor of the power-loom, born 24 April 1743, was the fourth son of William Cartwright of Marnham, Nottinghamshire, where the family had been settled for generations. One of his elder brothers was Major John Cartwright [q. v.] He received his early education at Wakefield grammar school, and at fourteen went to University College, Oxford. When he wished to become a candidate for a fellowship at Magdalen without having graduated, convocation (Cartwright, Memorial, read to the Society of Arts, p. 6) passed an act enabling him to take his B.A. degree before the regular time. On receiving it, in 1764, he was elected a fellow of Magdalen, proceeding M.A. in 1766. A versifier from an early age, he published anonymously, in 1772, ‘Armine and Elvira, a legendary poem,’ which went rapidly through several editions and was reprinted in an anonymous volume of poems issued by him in 1773. In the essay on the imitation of the ancient ballads prefixed to the third part of the ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,’ Sir Walter Scott speaks of ‘Armine and Elvira’ as a ‘beautiful piece,’ and admired by Dugald Stewart. Having taken orders and married a lady who appears to have inherited property in Doncaster, Cartwright was presented to the perpetual curacy of Brampton, near Wakefield. In 1779 he became rector of Goadby Marwood, Leicestershire, and published (anonymously) ‘The Prince of Peace,’ an ode deploring the war with the American colonists. At Goadby Marwood he made agricultural experiments on his glebe land, contributed to the ‘Monthly Review,’ and formed an intimacy with Crabbe, who in 1772 became his neighbour as chaplain to the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir. Cartwright was prebendary of Lincoln from 1786 till death.

In 1784 Cartwright paid a holiday-visit to Matlock, near Arkwright's [see Arkwright, Sir Richard] cotton-spinning mills at Cromford. There Cartwright happened to say in conversation that Arkwright ‘would have to set his wits to work to invent a weaving-mill,’ and argued that it would not be more difficult to make a weaving-machine than it had been to construct the automatic chess-player. From this conversation sprang the modern power-loom, according to the account years afterwards furnished by Cartwright to the contributor of an article on the cotton manufacture in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ (reproduced in Baines's ‘History of the Cotton Manufacture,’ pp. 229–30).

Soon after his return home Cartwright constructed a power-loom without having seen the working of the ordinary hand-loom. His clumsy machine was inadequate as an effective substitute for the hand-loom. Nevertheless he took out a patent for it, 4 April 1785, removing in the same year to Doncaster, where he had become possessed of some property, probably in right of his wife. Having studied the working of the handloom, in 1786—issuing the while a new edition of his poems (mostly commonplace)—he visited Manchester to have a model of his improved machine constructed and criticised by skilful workmen, and to enlist the aid of local manufacturers. Disappointed in this hope, and having taken out two more patents, 30 Oct. 1786 and 18 Aug. 1787, for further improvements in his loom, he set up at Doncaster a factory of his own for weaving and spinning. The power-loom worked there was the parent of that now in use, and in it an ingenious mechanism was substituted for the hands and feet of the ordinary weaver (see drawing of a portion of it, with the improvements subsequently patented in 1790, in appendix C to the Memoir of Cartwright, by his daughter, and description of it there, pp. 64–6; also the drawings of it, with extracts from the specification of 1790, in Barlow, History of Weaving, pp. 236–8). Cartwright's was not the earliest power-loom, but it was the first by which wide cloth, such as calico, was woven for practical purposes (Barlow, p. 229).

Yorkshire had for centuries been a principal seat of the woollen manufacture, and at Doncaster Cartwright invented a wool-combing machine which contributed greatly to lessen the cost of that manufacture. It was an invention more original than his power-loom. No method of combing wool but by hand appears to have been so much as thought of when Cartwright took out, in 1789, his first patent for a wool-combing machine. Its structure was essentially modified when he took out, in 1790, a second and third patent, followed by a fourth in 1792. It substituted mechanical action for manual. Even in the earlier stages of its development one machine did the work of twenty combers by hand, and by the use of a single set of the machines a manufacturer could save 1,100l. per annum (see drawings and descriptions of it in Memoir, pp. 98–100, and in James, History of the Worsted Manufacture, where its initial value is spoken of disparagingly). Petitions against its use poured into the House of Commons from the wool-combers, some fifty thousand in number. So formidable seemed their opposition that Cartwright, in a counter-petition, expressed his readiness to limit the number of his machines to be used in any one year. The House of Commons appointed a committee to inquire into the matter, and nothing came of the wool-combers' agitation (Journals of the House of Commons, xlix. 322; Cartwright, Memorial, read to the Society of Arts, p. 43).

Cartwright's Doncaster factory is said to have been on a limited scale, until the erection of a steam-engine in 1788 or 1789, though on visiting it Mrs. Crabbe was astonished by its magnitude (Life of Crabbe, by his son, 1847, p. 38). In 1791 a Manchester firm contracted with Cartwright for the use of four hundred of his power-looms, and built a mill in which some of them were worked by a steam-engine, at a saving, it was said, of half the wages paid to the hand-loom weavers. The Manchester mill was burned to the ground, probably by workmen, who feared to be displaced. This catastrophe prevented manufacturers from repeating the experiment. Cartwright's success at Doncaster was obstructed by opposition and by the costly character of his processes in that early stage. By 1793, having spent some 30,000l., he was deeply in debt. He relinquished his works at Doncaster, giving up his property to his creditors, transferring for their benefit also his patent rights to his brothers, John and Charles, and recording in a stoical sonnet his feelings at this destruction of his hopes.

In 1793 Cartwright removed to London, where, in a small house nearly on the site afterwards occupied by the Coliseum, he built a room with the ‘geometrical bricks,’ patented 14 April 1795, whose cost alone would have prevented their general use. He constructed a new steam-engine, for which he took out a patent in 1797, and in which alcohol was wholly or in part to be substituted for water (see drawings in Tredgold, Steam-engine, i. 34–5). He now formed an intimacy with Robert Fulton, co-operating with him in experiments for the application of steam to navigation. Cartwright was one of the arbitrators appointed to settle the terms of the compensation to be given by the British government to Fulton on his suppression of a secret for blowing up ships by submarine navigation. In 1799 Cartwright was for a time candidate for the secretaryship of the Society of Arts, and prepared a ‘memorial,’ afterwards published, which gives some autobiographical details. He had been appointed a prebendary of Lincoln in 1786 (Le Neve, Fasti, ii. 207) by Thurlow, then bishop of that see.

In 1800 Cartwright's patent for the wool-combing machine had only a few years to run. It was coming into use slowly, but infringements were frequent and costly to resist. He petitioned parliament to prolong his patent for fourteen years, and circulated a ‘case’ in which he told the story of his inventions and his losses by them. After an inquiry by a committee of the House of Commons, a bill prolonging the patent for fourteen years was passed in 1801. When the prolonged patent expired, Cartwright remained a loser by his invention. Cartwright had been again directing his attention to agricultural improvements. In 1793 had appeared a letter from him to Sir John Sinclair on a new reaping machine of his invention, and in June 1801 he received a prize from the board of agriculture for an essay on husbandry. In 1800 the ninth duke of Bedford gave him the management of an experimental farm at Woburn. The duke died in the following spring, and Cartwright preached a funeral sermon which was severely censured, as improper from a clergyman, in a published letter, signed ‘Christianus Laicus,’ addressed to Charles James Fox. The tenth duke of Bedford retained his services until 1807. In that year appeared a volume of affectionately didactic ‘Letters and Sonnets’ addressed by Cartwright to Lord John Russell, then a boy of fifteen. During his stay at Woburn, Cartwright's zealous promotion of agricultural improvement procured him distinctions from the Society of Arts and the board of agriculture. In 1806 the university of Oxford conferred on him his B.D. and D.D. degrees, and he officiated as domestic chaplain to the Duke of Bedford. He remained rector of Goadby Marwood until 1808 at least.

In 1804 Cartwright's patent for the power-loom expired. For several years after his abandonment of the Doncaster factory his power-loom was little used, but, with improvements effected in it, it came gradually into some favour. About 1806 Cartwright found his invention to have become a source of considerable profit to Lancashire manufacturers. He wrote an indignant letter to a Manchester friend. In August 1807 some fifty prominent Manchester firms signed a memorial to the Duke of Portland, as prime minister, asking the government to bestow a substantial recognition on the services rendered to the country by Cartwright's invention of the power-loom. Cartwright petitioned the House of Commons, which on 10 June 1809 voted him 10,000l.

Cartwright now became independent. He bought a small farm at Hollander, between Sevenoaks and Tunbridge, and occupied himself during the rest of his life in cultivating it and in useful inventions, agricultural and general. In his eighty-third year he sent to the Royal Society, which did not publish it, a paper containing a new theory of the movement of the planets round the sun. At Hollander he was kind to the poor and active as a magistrate. Crabbe's son speaks of Cartwright as ‘a portly dignified old gentleman, grave and polite, but full of humour and spirit.’ Inventing to the last, he died at Hastings on 30 Oct. 1823, and was buried in the church of Battle, where his family erected a mural monument to his memory. Cartwright left several children, among them Edmund, rector of Earnley; Elizabeth, wife of the Rev. John Penrose, better known as the Mrs. Markham of juvenile historical literature; Frances Dorothy [q. v.], the biographer of her uncle, Major Cartwright; and Mary, the wife of Henry Eustatius Strickland, no doubt the authoress of the meritorious biography of her father, which was published anonymously, but to the preface of which its writer affixed the signature ‘M. S.’

[A Memoir of the Life, Writings, and Mechanical Inventions of Edmund Cartwright, D.D., &c. (1843); Bennett Woodcroft's Brief Biographies of Inventors for the Manufacture of Textile Fabrics (1863); Abridgments of Specifications relating to Weaving (1861); Report from the Committee on Dr. Cartwright's Petition respecting his weaving machine, together with the minutes of evidence: House of Commons' Papers (1808); E. Baines's History of Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (1833); Barlow's History and Principles of Weaving by Hand and by Power (1878); James's History of the Worsted Manufacture in England from the earliest times (1857); Tredgold's Steam-engine, its Invention and Progressive Improvement (1838).]

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