Richard Arkwright – the Father of the Industrial Revolution

Portrait of Sir Richard Arkwright
by Mather Brown

On August 3, 1792, Sir Richard Arkwright passed away. He was a self-made man and a leading entrepreneur during the early Industrial RevolutionArkwright’s achievement was to combine power, machinery, semi-skilled labour and the new raw material (cotton) to create mass-produced yarn. His skills of organization made him, more than anyone else, the creator of the modern factory system. Later in his life Arkwright was also known as ‘the Father of the Industrial Revolution‘.

Richard Arkwright was educated by his cousin and later apprenticed to a barber. In the 1750s, he invented waterproof dye for wigs. He increased his interest in spinning and carding machinery that could turn raw cotton into thread. However, industrial production of cotton was not really possible back then. Lewis Paul invented a carding machine in 1748 that required a lot of human labor, while James Hargreaves’s spinning Jenny was suitable to produce only the weaker thread or the woof. Arkwright began working on an improved version of a spinning machine and along with the clockmaker John Kay, he was able to the water frame which produced a stronger length-wise thread [1,2].

Arkwright and Kay patented their work and Arkwright used nearly all of his savings to do so. The inventor turned to water-powered energy and built, along with Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need, the first successful water-powered cotton mill and presumably, the first modern factory in the world. He went on to improve the cotton production process and patented improved carding machine which along with other inventions enabled him to increase the production of high quality thread at a lower cost. Soon, he set up new mills throughout Britain and became one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution [1].

In the following period, the inventor and businessman had to face several accusations by contemporary inventors to have stolen their ideas and technologies. Arkwright lost his patent for the water frame and his carding machine from 1785. Still, he had been very well established in this field of business and was knighted by King George III in 1786 [1]. Only six years later, the inventor passed away as a very wealthy man. Even though he has been accused of stealing many ideas, it is no doubt that his status as a well established inventor and his contribution to the Industrial Revolution are significant. Samuel Slater later brought Arkwright’s manufacturing system to America and managed to build a water-powered cotton mill there, which was an important development in the industrialization of the US [1,2].

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture on the Industrial Revolution by John Merriman at Yale University.

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