The New Student's Reference Work/Arkwright, Sir Richard

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Sir Richard Arkwright

Arkwright, Sir Richard. On a stormy night in the year 1765, a foot-traveler knocked at the door of a thatched cottage in the village of Stanhill, Lancashire, England, and asked for shelter from the weather. The light of a candle and the whirring of a wheel guided him to that dwelling rather than to any other of the group. A cotton-spinner was there lengthening his day of toil, while his neighbors slept. At the knock the candle was blown out and the noise stopped. After a moment a voice asked:

"Who knocks?"
"Dick Arkwright."
"A spinner?"
"No, a barber and hair buyer from Bolton. I can pay for a lodging for the night."

When the stranger was admitted and the candle had been relighted, there was disclosed a strange spinning-wheel with eight spindles. The host was James Hargreaves, and this was his newly invented spinning jenny which he used secretly because his ignorant neighbors, fearing such a machine would make work scarce, had destroyed his first model. In the itinerant barber he feared no rival, and he found a sympathetic listener. From this chance encounter of two poor, unlettered laborers resulted inventions that made England the greatest cotton-manufacturing country in the world, and revolutionized the methods of the industry.

Richard Arkwright was at the time thirty-three years old. He was born in Preston, a seaport town north of Liverpool, in 1732, the youngest of thirteen children of a poor laborer. At the age of ten he was apprenticed to a barber in Bolton, and for twenty years his life was passed in a cellar shop, shaving workingmen at a penny a shave. It is doubtful if he could read and write, "nevertheless," as Thomas Carlyle says of him, "the man had notions in his own rough head." His discovery of a method of preparing and dyeing hair for the wig-maker, lifted him out of the cellar-shop and into the highway. Hair-buying took him among the poorest workmen in the cotton-spinning district. As he went from hamlet to hamlet he heard talk of the need for a better and more rapid method of spinning. The yarn was not only insufficient in quantity but was so poor in quality that flax had to be used for warp. The all-cotton fabrics had to be imported from India, and were very expensive. Arkwright saw that Hargreave's jenny could spin eight threads at once, but that the yarn was still inferior.

He had once been through a rolling mill and seen iron bars lengthened and strengthened by being forced through rolls. Why not apply the process to cotton? He had a little money laid by, but he had no knowledge of mechanics. So he employed a clock-maker to construct his machine. The first part of it consisted of two sets of rolls turning on each other like those of a clothes wringer. One roll of each pair was of steel, finely ground, the other was covered with leather. The filaments of the cotton plant were drawn through the grooves, spun and compressed. Spindles then took the yarn and stretched and twisted it. Fearing the spinning frame he invented might be destroyed, he took it to Nottingham and began to use his yarn in hosiery mills. He obtained his first patent the same year, 1769, that Watt secured his on the separate condenser stationary engine. And Arkwright was one of the first to operate a factory by steam power. He made the first all-cotton fabrics produced in England. His wonderful invention inspired the jealousy of rivals, his patents were attacked and declared void, and he was compelled to pay duty by having his goods classed as East Indian calicoes. His spinning frame was copied with impunity. However, they "couldn't copy his min." In 1775, Arkwright took out new patents on machines for equipping an entire textile factory. It is said that no other patent ever issued was so comprehensive, and covered so many distinct mechanical inventions, all necessary to the processes of one industry. It covered every stage of manufacture from the raw fibre to the finished fabric ready for use merchants' shelves, and provided for various weaves and mixtures of cotton with wool, silk and flax.

Many biographers have scant appreciation of the man, while admitting his genius and the value of his inventions. He won a fortune and a knighthood, and he educated himself to fit his new station in life, employing private tutors and giving an hour each day to study after he was fifty years old. His force of character and executive ability are shown in his organizing the factory system. Before Arkwright's time spinning was a cottage industry, and much of the weaving was also done in private houses. The workmen labored irregularly, and the product was far from uniform in quality. Arkwright brought his workmen under a factory roof, compelled cleanliness, order and regularity of hours, and establishes standards in quality and quantity of fabrics produced. His cotton factory at Crawford became the model system which other plants that were to prosper had to adopt. He put into practice the principles of industrial economy that Adam Smith taught—the saving accomplished by organized, disciplined division of labor.

Aside from London, the county of Lancashire is to-day the most populous and prosperous part of England. When Arkwright patented his invention, the county had only 600,000 people. To-day Liverpool, the greatest cotton market in the world, has a greater population; and Manchester, the largest cotton manufacturing city, has nearly as many. The county has a population of nearly 7,000,000. For a century and a quarter Lancashire has grown and thriven chiefly on Arkwright's inventions, and there are few people on the globe who have not profited by them. It must be admitted, however, that the inventor was no disinterested. He never sacrificed his own interests or did anything by intention to endear himself to an admiring and grateful world. See Heroes of Science, by T. C. Lewis, M. A.