Richard Arkwright

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Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), English inventor who originated the spinning frame, and helped develop the modern factory system. A self-made man, he was a leading entrepreneur of the Industrial Revolution. Arkwright's achievement was to combine power, machinery, semi-skilled labor, and a new raw material (cotton) to create, more than a century before Ford, mass production. His mechanical abilities and, above all, his genius for organization made him more than anyone else, the creator of the modern factory system.

Arkwright was born at Preston, Lancashire, on Dec. 23, 1732, the youngest son of a large and poor family. Unlike most entrepreneurs, who were nonconformist, he attended the Church of England. He was apprenticed to a barber at Kirkham and in 1750 moved to Bolton. There he was a wig maker and publican, later traveling the country buying women's hair for wigs. In 1755 he married Patients Holt, who bore him a son before she died in 1756; he remarried in 1761, to Margaret Biggins (1723–1811); they had three daughters, two of whom died young.

On his own he took an interest in spinning machinery that turned cotton into thread; in 1768 he and John Kay, a clockmaker, relocated to the textile center of Nottingham. In 1769 he patented the water-frame, a machine which produced a strong twist for warps, substituting metal cylinders for human fingers. This made possible inexpensive yarns to manufacture cheap calicoes, on which the subsequent great expansion of the cotton industry was based. Arkwright and John Smalley set up a small horse-driven factory at Nottingham. Needing more capital to expand, Arkwright partnered with Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need, wealthy hosiery manufacturers, who were nonconformists. In 1771 the partners built a water-powered mill at Cromford, which had water power and skilled labor. Arkwright spent £12,000 perfecting his machine which contained the "crank and comb" for removing the cotton web off carding engines. Arkwright had mechanized all the preparatory and spinning processes, and he began to establish water-powered cotton mills even as far away as Scotland. His success encouraged many others to copy him, so he had great difficulty in enforcing the patent he was granted in 1775.

By 1774 the firm employed 600 workers; in the next five years it expanded to new locations. He was invited to Scotland where he helped establish the cotton industry. A large new mill at Birkacre, Lancashire, was destroyed, however, in the antimachinery riots in 1779. Arkwight in 1775 obtained for a grand patent covering many processes that he hoped would give him monopoly power over the fast-growing industry, but Lancashire opinion was bitterly hostile to exclusive patents; in 1781 Arkwright tried and failed to uphold his monopolistic 1775 patent. The case dragged on in court for years but was finally settled against him in 1785, on the grounds that his specifications were deficient and that he had borrowed his ideas from one Thomas Highs.

Aggressive and self-sufficient, Arkwright proved a difficult man to work with. He bought out all his partners and went on to build factories at Manchester, Matlock, Bath, New Lanark (in partnership with David Dale) and elsewhere.

Arkwright's achievements were widely recognized; he served as high sheriff of Derbyshire and was knighted in 1786. Much of his fortune derived from licensing his intellectual rights; about 30,000 people were employed in 1785 in factories using Arkwright's patents. He died at Willersley Castle, the mansion he had built overlooking his Cromford mills, on Aug. 3, 1792, leaving a fortune of £500,000.


  • Chapman, S. D. The early factory masters: the transition to the factory system in the midlands textile industry (1967)
  • Cooke, A. J. "Richard Arkwright and the Scottish cotton industry", Textile History, 10 (1979), 196–202
  • Fitton, R. S. The Arkwrights: spinners of fortune (1989), the major scholarly study
  • Fitton, R. S. and A. P. Wadsworth. The Strutts and the Arkwrights, 1758–1830: a study of the early factory system (1958)
  • Hewish, John. "From Cromford to Chancery Lane: New Light on the Arkwright Patent Trials," Technology and Culture, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 80-86 in JSTOR
  • Hills, Richard L. "Sir Richard Arkwright and His Patent Granted in 1769," Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Apr., 1970), pp. 254-260 in JSTOR
  • Mason, J. J. "Arkwright, Sir Richard (1732–1792)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004 online
  • Tann, Jennifer. "Richard Arkwright and technology", History, 58 (1973), 29–44
  • Tann, Jennifer. The development of the factory (1970)
  • Tann, Jennifer. “Arkwright's Employment of Steam Power.” Business History 1979 21(2): 247-250. Issn: 0007-6791 Fulltext: in Ebsco

See also