Richard Arkwright (1733-1792) did perhaps more than any other single person to transform the face of England and to help usher in the modern world as we know it.
On a basic level he revolutionised the world of cotton weaving in the 18th century, bringing prosperity to a large part of northern England – especially himself. He achieved this by the use of the ’spinning frame’ – an invention which produced stronger cotton more efficiently than the existing ’spinning jenny’, and later through a water-powered variant called the ‘water frame’.
The exact inventor of the spinning jenny and spinning frame are slightly unclear, with various contendors (Thomas Highs, John Jay, Richard Arkwright, James Hargreaves). But 200 years later, knowing the name of the real inventor is perhaps less important than what followed.
The Industrial Revolution was a time of profound change in England, with new work techniques and practices having a widespread impact on the whole country. The raw materials were available, labour was to hand, power could be generated and the first industrial machinery had been invented. It needed one person with the inspiration to pull the ingredients together, and that was what Arkwright achieved.
It was he who had the greatest impact because of the work methods and innovation that he introduced. Mass use of machines, a focus on division of labour to improve efficiency, and a meticulous detail of planning meant that for the first time manufacturing moved away from being a small cottage industry, and to focus on mass-production based on efficient use of resources. The first factory had been invented!
Furthermore, in Cromford in Derbyshire Richard Arkwright took the process a step further – because of the lack of local workers and accommodation he built a large amount of housing near the factory. This isn’t to suggest that Arkwright was acting charitably, rather he was acting for the benefit of his own wallet, and was often ruthless in business.
His factories operated long, hard work days and made widespread use of child labour and he pursued his business interests very vigorously. The child labour aspect is important, because Arkwright deliberately chose a location where the adults were engaged in the lead mines, work that was unsuitable for children. The right of the workers in the village were small, they had little respite from work, and were usually obliged to spend their meagre earnings in shops also provided by the factory.
The transition from small industry to factory was not always an easy one, and as the industry boomed during the 1770’s Arkwright faced many challenges, related both to patents, which he spent a great deal of time defending (and ultimately losing); and to the use of machines themselves, in the riots against the use of machines that took place towards the end of the decade.
Many people tried to emulate the techniques, with or without the appropriate licences, with varying degrees of success, and by the mid 1780’s the patents had been lost by Richard Arkwright and were widely and freely used elsewhere.
Doubtless the innovations he implemented would have taken place sooner or later with or without Arkwright, but it was he who implemented them first and so it is to he that the world owes a great debt, because the Industrial Revolution and its techniques were forever to transform the world as we know it.