Summary of Karen Fisk’s “Arkwright: Cotton King or Spin Doctor?”

Karen Fisk seeks to determine the validity of some of Sir Richard Arkwright’s titles such as ‘father of the factory system’ or ‘Cotton King’ in her magazine article, “Arkwright: Cotton King¬† or Spin Doctor?” that was published in History Today in 1998. Richard Arkwright was an English barber turned inventor/entrepreneur during the early years of the industrial revolution that would go on to own numerous successful cotton mills and receive knightship, along with other high diplomacy statuses, for his contributions by George III. Fisk finds Arkwright’s reputation reasonable, but she clarifies that Arkwright should maybe share his recognition with other key contributors to his success and the success of early industrialized factories in general.

For example, Arkwright’s success came from his patented spinning frame, later renamed the water frame, that drastically sped up the process for making cotton based threads and determined business mindset that led to well-organized, productive mills. However, Fisk points out that Arkwright received considerable assistance in inventing his solution to the mystery of a working spinning wheel and that many competitors were extremely close to beating him to the punch.¬† Arkwright employed a clockmaker named John Kaye, who had previously worked on similar, unsuccessful inventions for Arkwright’s competitors, which leads Fisk to suggest Arkwright merely modified an attempt by a man named Thomas Highs. Also, complex, mechanized machines and water power had already been used in earlier textile mills meaning Arkwright simply popularized already practiced techniques. His mills required a lot of capital which he received from two men named John Smalley and David Thronley who were also heavily involved in Arkwright’s rise to success. These factors provide many reasonable arguments for a shared crown for many of Arkwright’s titles.

Yet, Arkwright was not inseparable from other factory tycoons during the birth of the industrial revolution. He had a well-known reputation of being accommodating to his workers and held strict restrictions on child labor as Fisk mentions. He took his employee’s well being into consideration even providing them with housing for their families, schooling for their children, and farms for fresh foods. The same cannot be said for many industrial factories which created a bad stigma around the newly introduced working conditions. Health was a concern due to unsanitary work spaces that also posed a threat to young children since many factories employed from the age of 5 and up.

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For further reading on the topic of this topic check out the following link that provides some interesting facts about child labor during the British industrial revolution even though it is an encyclopedia source.

Also for further information on Arkwright or his invention check out:

The first link is a biography of Sir Richard Arkwright. It focuses more on Arkwright’s success and potential scandals than Fisk’s article does and his drastically shorter which makes things very clear. It speaks on his early beginnings as a barber with a less-fortunate background and how he turned a challenge into an opportunity to become an wealthy businessman. It also mentions the riches of his success, but provides some interesting problems he faced along his journey. The second link is a short clip taken from a longer documentary on YouTube. The clip shows Arkwright’s machine in action which I thought would be useful.

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– Joel Scarbro

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