Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hargreaves, James (d.1778)

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HARGREAVES, JAMES (d. 1778), inventor of the spinning-jenny, was probably a native of Blackburn. Between 1740 and 1750 he seems to have been a carpenter and handloom weaver at Standhill, near that town. About 1760 his skill led to his employment by Robert Peel of Blackburn (grandfather of the statesman) to construct an improved carding-machine. He is supposed to have invented the spinning-jenny about 1764, and to have first thought of it from observing an ordinary spinning-wheel overturned on the ground, when both the wheel and the spindle continued to revolve. The spindle having thus exchanged a horizontal for an upright position, it seems to have occurred to him that if a number of spindles were placed upright and side by side several threads might be spun at once. In any case he contrived a machine on one part of w r hich he placed eight rovings in a row, and in another part a row of eight spindles. A description of the machine with a drawing of its first form is given in Baines (pp. 157-8). The spinningjenny (so called for unknown reasons) has been described as ' the instrument by which (so far as we have any authentic and trustworthy evidence) the human individual was first enabled, for any permanently advantageous and profitable purpose, to spin . . . wool, cotton, or flax, into a plurality of threads at the same time and by one operation ' (Guest). The spinning-jenny was invented at a time when it was urgently needed. The fly-shuttle, invented by John Kay [q. v.], and supposed to have first come into general use in the cotton manufacture about 1760, had doubled the productive power of the weaver, while that of the worker on the spinning-wheel remained much the same. The spinning-jenny at once multiplied eightfold the productive power of the spinner, and from its form could be worked much more easily by children than by adults. It did not, however, entirely supersede the spinning-wheel, on which, in the cotton manufacture at least, the rovings which the jenny converted into yarn had still to be spun; but in the woollen manufacture the jenny was used for production both of warp and weft long after it had been superseded in the cotton manufacture by Crompton's mule, of which it was one of the parents [see Crompton, Samuel]. At first the jenny was worked solely by Hargreaves and his children to make weft for his own loom. But to supply the wants of a large family he sold some of the new machines. The spinners on the old-fashioned wheel became alarmed, and in the spring of 1768 a mob from Blackburn and the neighbourhood gutted Hargreaves's house and destroyed his jenny and his loom (see Abram, pp. 205-6). Hargreaves migrated to Nottingham and formed a partnership with a Mr. James, who built a small cotton-mill in which the jenny was utilised. It was doubtless with the aid of his partner that Hargreaves was enabled to take out a patent for the spinning-jenny (dated 12 July 1770; Abridgments of Specifications for Spinning, No. 962). Learning that the jenny was being extensively used by Lancashire manufacturers, Hargreaves brought actions for infringement of patent. They offered him 3,000l. for permission to use it, but he stood out for 4,000l. The actions were being proceeded with, when his attorney abandoned them on learning of the sale of jennies at Blackburn. Hargreaves continued in partnership with James until his death in April 1778, six years after which there were at work in England 20,000 hand-jennies of 80 spindles each, against 550 mules of 90 spindles each. Hargreaves is described as having been 'a stout, broad-set man, about five feet ten inches high.' He is said to have left property valued at 7,000l. (Abram, p. 209), and his widow received 400l. for her share in the business. After her death some of their children were extremely poor. Joseph Brotherton [q. v.] endeavoured to raise a fund for them, and found great difficulty in procuring from the wealthy manufacturers of Lancashire subscriptions sufficient to preserve them from destitution.

For many years after his death Hargreaves was supposed to have effected in the carding-machine an admirable improvement which Arkwright claimed and in 1775 patented. Arkwright was engaged at Nottingham in the cotton manufacture for a year or two during Hargreaves's stay in that town [see Arlwright, Sir Richard], and at the action brought by Arkwright to secure his patents in 1785 the widow and a son of Hargreaves, with a workman who had been employed by him, swore that Hargreaves had contrived the improvement referred to. About fifty years after the trial, however, a statement from personal knowledge of the facts was made by Mr. James, a son of Hargreaves's partner, which showed conclusively that Hargreaves or his own father, either or both, had appropriated the invention from Arkwright through information given by one of Arkwright's workmen. Hargreaves himself has been represented by Mr. Guest (Compendious History, pp. 13-14) as merely the improver, and not the inventor, of the spinning-jenny. That writer attributes the invention to the same Thomas Highs from whom, he maintains, Arkwright unscrupulously appropriated the famous rollers. But the evidence adduced to prove that Highs invented the spinning-jenny is very inconclusive. One item of it is that Highs had, and that Hargreaves undeniably had not, a daughter named Jane, and after her, Mr. oruest affirms, the machine was called a spinning-jenny.

[Baines's Hist. of the Cotton Manufacture, 1835; Guest's Compendious Hist. of the Cotton Manufacture, 1823; and his British Cotton Manufactures; Abram's Hist. of Blackburn, 1877; F. Epinasse's Lancashire Worthies, 1st ser. 1874.]

F. E.