Arkwright – Cotton king or spin doctor? – Kyle Weissenberger

This article written by Karen Fisk details the life and career of Richard Arkwright, a textile tycoon in the 18th century. Fisk brings to question the common characterization of Arkwright as the “father of the factory system” as well as the “founding father of the industrial revolution”.

Arkwright was an educated man, and in being so saw the potential for improvement and profit within the textile spinning industry. While previously an in-home activity, the beginnings of the spinning industry started with Thomas Cotchett and George Sorocold with their waterwheel powered silk mill. Which was soon improved upon by Thomas Lombe, starting the pattern of textile factories. Improvements and additions to the textile technology continued for some time, and in 1768 Arkwright employed engineer John Kaye, and began their venture to create an improved spinning wheel. Some of Arkwright’s designs closely resembled other iterations and are often noted to be simply modified or updated versions. Arkwright received considerable financial help from multiple backers, and ultimately received a patent for his designs.

With financial assistance and patents, the partnership leased land and began to manufacture cotton using waterwheels to power their machines. As demand grew, the textile industry became the largest employer in Britain, and Arkwright found himself in the heat of it, outgrowing his initial location and expanding to multiple mill-sites. Starting in 1772, Arkwright underwent multiple trials challenging the validity of his patents, and eventually lost his licenses. Although, Arkwright continued to expand his empire and became the areas largest employer. Eventually being knighted by King George III and appointed high Sheriff of Derbyshire. Fisk brings a question to the table, Why?

Why Is Arkwright known as the “father of the factory system”? His designs and patents were simple advancements to existing technology, he had such considerable help in the form of experienced engineers and financial backers, why was he held with such high regard? Fisk offers a simple answer. Arkwright had many philanthropic characteristics and was known for caring for the wellbeing of his workers. Simply put, he was well liked. Arkwright believed in education, he built schools for children, housing and chapels for his employees, and had a no work on Sunday policy. It is also stated that Arkwright refused to employ children under the age of ten, and not until they could read. Whether his titles are deserved or not, his role in the textile industry and Industrial Revolution is undeniable.

 

Kyle Weissenberger

 

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