Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Kay, John (fl.1733-1764)

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KAY, JOHN (fl. 1733–1764), inventor, was born at the Park, Walmersley, near Bury, Lancashire, on 16 July 1704, and is sometimes referred to as ‘Kay of Bury,’ to distinguish him from another John Kay, a clockmaker, of Warrington, who was concerned with Arkwright in the invention of spinning machinery. Kay is said to have been educated abroad. On his return to England his father seems to have placed him in charge of a woollen manufactory which he owned at Colchester. In 1730 he was established at Bury, his native town, as a reed-maker, and took out his first patent in that year for ‘an engine for making, twisting, and carding mohair, and twining and dressing of thread’ (No. 515), but no description of the machine is extant. About the same time he effected a great improvement in reeds for looms by making the dents of thin polished blades of metal instead of cane (the only material then in use), whereby they were rendered more durable, and adapted to weave fabrics of much finer and more even texture. These reeds speedily came into general use.

In 1733 Kay took out a patent (No. 542) for the fly-shuttle, which was perhaps the most important improvement ever made in the loom. Up to that time the shuttle had been thrown through the alternate threads of the warp from side to side by one of the weaver's hands, and was caught at the opposite side by the other hand. In weaving broad pieces two men were employed, who threw the shuttle from one side to the other. The weft was beat or closed up after each pick or throw of the shuttle by a ‘layer’ extending across the piece in process of being woven. Kay added to the ‘layer’ a sort of grooved guide, called a ‘race-board,’ in which the shuttle was rapidly thrown from side to side by means of a ‘picker’ or shuttle driver. The use of one hand only was required, the other being employed in beating or closing up the weft. The rapidity with which Kay's improvement made the shuttle work led to its being called the fly-shuttle. The amount of work which could be performed by a weaver was more than doubled, and the quality was also improved. A powerful stimulus was thus given to inventions connected with spinning. The patent of 1733 also included a batting machine for removing dust from wool by beating it with sticks. Kay's next patent, granted in 1738 (No. 561), was for a windmill for working pumps and for an improved chain-pump, but neither of these inventions was of any practical importance.

In this last patent Kay describes himself as an engineer. Woodcroft states (Brief Biographies of Inventors, p. 3) that he removed to Leeds in 1738. The new shuttle was largely adopted by the woollen manufacturers of Yorkshire, but they were unwilling to pay royalties, and an association called the Shuttle Club was formed to defray the costs of legal proceedings for infringement of the patent. Kay found himself involved in numerous lawsuits, and although he was successful in the courts he was nearly ruined by the expenses of prosecuting his claims. In 1745 he was again at Bury, and in that year he obtained a patent (No. 612), in conjunction with Joseph Stell of Keighley, for a small-ware loom to be actuated by mechanical power instead of by manual labour; but this attempt at a ‘power loom’ does not seem to have been brought to a successful issue, probably on account of his financial embarrassments and the opposition of the operatives. In 1753 a mob broke into Kay's house at Bury, destroying everything they found, and Kay himself barely escaped with his life. Among his other inventions was a machine for making wire cards, the original model of which is now exhibited in the South Kensington Museum.

In ‘Letters on the Utility and Policy of employing Machines to Shorten Labour,’ London, 1780—a work wholly anonymous, except for the signature ‘T.’ appended to the preface—a letter from Kay to the Society of Arts, dated 1764, is quoted as saying: ‘I have a great many more inventions than what I have given in, and the reason I have not put them forward is the bad treatment that I have had from woollen and cotton factories in different parts of England twenty years ago, and then I applied to parliament, and they would not assist me in my affairs, which obliged me to go abroad to get money to pay my debts and support my family.’ The records of the Society of Arts do not afford any corroboration of Kay's communication. It appears, however, from the minutes of the society that in April 1764 a letter was received from Robert Kay with reference to his father's wheel-shuttle. After some inquiry the secretary was instructed on 4 Dec. 1764 ‘to acquaint Mr. Kay that the society does not know any person who understands the manner of using his shuttle.’ According to ‘T.'s’ pamphlet Kay sought refuge in France, where he commenced business with the spinning machines smuggled out of England from Lancashire by one Holker some years before. He is said to have died in France in obscurity and poverty. He married a daughter of John Holl, esq., of Bury.

In summing up the value of Kay's inventions, Woodcroft says: ‘Kay's improvements in machinery for weaving continue in use to the present time; they form a part of each loom actuated by power, of which there are tens of thousands in this kingdom alone, forming cloths of silk, cotton, linen, and woollen. He was the founder of the first great improvements in the manufacture of cloth, by which employment is now given to hundreds of thousands of people, and to millions of pounds sterling’ (Brief Biographies of Inventors, pp. 5–6).

There is an original portrait of Kay at the South Kensington Museum. It has been lithographed, and has also been engraved by T. O. Barlow as one of a series of portraits of inventors of textile machinery published by Messrs. Agnew of Manchester in 1863. Kay and his fly-shuttle form the subject of one of the frescoes by Madox Brown in the Manchester town-hall.

In 1846 an attempt was made by Mr. Thomas Sutcliffe to obtain a parliamentary grant in aid of Kay's descendants, some of whom were in poor circumstances, and an appeal was issued in a large sheet containing sketches of Kay's various inventions. The appeal was unsuccessful.

Robert Kay (fl. 1760), the son of John Kay, invented about 1760 the ‘shuttle drop box,’ an ingenious contrivance for successively bringing shuttles carrying weft of different colours or qualities into operation. He appears to have worked in conjunction with his father.

[R. Guest's Hist. of the Cotton Manufacture, 1823; E. Baines's Hist. of the Cotton Manufacture, 1835; B. Woodcroft's Brief Biographies of Inventors, 1863; W. M. Brookes in Gent. Mag. 1867, iii. 336; Barlow's Hist. of Weaving, 1878, pp. 82, 222.]

R. B. P.