Sir Richard Arkwright: Inventions, Biography & Facts

Instructor: Molly Richards

Molly has ten years of middle school teaching experience and two master's degrees in teaching.

British inventor and entrepreneur Sir Richard Arkwright is considered the father of the factory system that started the Industrial Revolution in England. In this lesson you will learn about Arkwright's success in changing the textile industry.

England's Colonies and the Cotton Industry

In the 1700s, England had colonies, or territory that it controlled, all over the world. Most of its colonies, especially those in Asia and the Americas, provided England with resources that brought it wealth: silk, tobacco, sugar, gold and cotton, just to name a few. Along with money, all of these resources brought England great power.

Out of all of these goods, cotton was the most laborious resource, because it took a great amount of time to separate the cotton from the seeds. Cotton fibers then had to be spun into thread and then woven into textiles or cloth. All three of these tasks were originally done by hand over a long period of time. Inventions would later speed up all three of these processes, making production much faster. Sir Richard Arkwright greatly contributed to this industry with inventions and business models that forever changed England and spurred the Industrial Revolution, a period of time when industry boomed and machines replaced or greatly changed the work of people.

Arkwright's Early Life

Sir Richard Arkwright
Sir Richard Arkwright portrait

Richard Arkwright was born in Preston, Lancashire, England, on December 23, 1732. His family was neither wealthy nor very well educated. His cousin taught him to read and write. With no formal schooling, the career path chosen for him was a barber, and he became an apprentice. Eventually he owned his own shop and became interested in the wig making business. Wig fashion was declining, but his travels collecting hair exposed him to different people in the spinning and weaving business, and he began to think there might be money in the textile industry.

The Spinning Frame and the Carding Machine

The textile business in England was originally a cottage industry, meaning the work was done in the home. Raw cotton was first carded, or combed to make long pieces of yarn. The yarn was then spun into thread on a spinning wheel. Then threads were woven onto a loom to make a fabric. While a few inventions had begun to speed up parts of the textile process, Arkwright would invent a machine and improve on another existing machine that could replace a person having to do the work.

In the 1760s Arkwright invented a machine called the spinning frame, a device that could spin 128 threads at the same time. Compared to a person using a spinning wheel or the newer invention, the spinning jenny, which could spin eight threads at a time, Arkwright's invention was much more productive and created stronger thread.

Restored carding machine from 1775
Restored carding machine from 1775

In the 1770s, Arkwright improved upon the already existing carding machine, a device that combed cotton fiber into thread. He took out a patent for his new improvement on the machine and began to find a way to combine the spinning frame and the carding machine under one roof.

Water Power

In the early 1770s, Arkwright joined with two others in the textile business to raise money and construct a mill. The spinning frame was large and needed some power source to create motion. At first they tried using horses but that didn't work, so they built a water mill. The motion of the water created energy to move the spinning frame, now called the water frame, that spun the thread.

The spinning frame was later called the water frame, when it began to be powered by a water mill
Water Frame

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