Samuel Slater: Biography, Facts & Invention

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  • 0:01 Biography
  • 2:08 Innovations
  • 5:18 Legacy
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Matthew Schandler

Matthew teaches university-level History and is currently finishing a PhD at Lehigh University.

Samuel Slater was an industrial spy, a capitalist, and an innovator. The cotton textile factories he built in New England helped create the modern American economy. In this lesson, learn more about this man and his legacy.

Biography

Who cares about cotton textiles? Well, Samuel Slater did! Samuel Slater was born in Derbyshire, England. He showed an interest in tinkering with mechanical devices early in his life. Unlike his father who was a farmer, Slater was keen to learn how the spinning wheels of a local textile maker worked. At the young age of 14, Slater became an apprentice in Jedediah Strutt's cotton mill. Strutt had been partners with one of the most important textile machine inventors in the world, Richard Arkwright.

Slater gained incredible knowledge about textile production methods. When he moved to the United States at age 21, he understood how to make a series of machines that produced cotton yarn. Over time, he mechanized the entire textile manufacturing process. This process was complex and required many steps. Slater was useful to American manufacturing because he adapted these many steps into a system that fit the unique labor and geographic conditions of the United States.

Shortly after his arrival, he learned that a wealthy factory owner in Rhode Island wanted help improving his cotton textile machinery. Having mastered the details of the most sophisticated English machines, he contacted this man, Moses Brown, and offered his services. With Brown's money and Slater's knowledge, the partnership showed promise almost immediately.

By 1790, Slater had built a version of an Arkwright-style mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Put simply, this type of mill used machines powered by water to make cotton products faster and with less human labor. His factories were profitable, which allowed him to expand his business. Three years later, Slater began building mills in New Hampshire, Connecticut, and other parts of Rhode Island. In 1798, Slater and his brother formed their own enterprise, Slater & Company. He died a millionaire in 1835.

Innovations

Slater is an important figure more for his innovations than his inventions. In fact, he borrowed the technological inventions of Arkwright and transplanted them to North America. He took big risks in doing this, however. It was illegal to take blueprints or machines out of England. If Slater had been caught, he might have been arrested and killed by the English government.

The myth surrounding Slater is that he memorized incredibly complex blueprints for textile machines and helped recreate the English cotton industry in the United States. He likely had actual copies of these water frame blueprints. These machines used water power from streams to mechanize textile production, which made it more efficient. With machinery in place, small factories like those Slater built in Rhode Island contributed to the United States becoming a major player in the world economy. Using machines to produce goods more quickly and cheaply was a key factor in the American Industrial Revolution.

What was still not in place were the workers he needed to run these factories. Many traditional cotton workers did not want to work for a boss. They had been independent and thought the rigid schedules of factory life were cruel and unfair.

This brings us to Slater's biggest innovation. He combined the old labor system with new ideas. The old system divided each of the many steps to make cotton thread and finished cloth into stages that different workers completed. This system was called the putting-out system. The name hints at the process: each worker would finish a step in the textile production process and then literally put their work outside for another person to take. The next worker would then complete another task, and so on, until a finished product was made.

What is now called the Slater system still relied on this putting-out process but combined some of the steps in small factories. Over time, as workers slowly became accustomed to factory work, more of the steps were integrated into the mills.

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