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Samuel Slater Biography & Inventions | Samuel Slater Overview

Nathan Forbes, Matthew Schandler
  • Author
    Nathan Forbes
  • Instructor
    Matthew Schandler

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

What did Samuel Slater invent? Learn about the Slater brothers, Samuel Slater's influences, and his achievements. Read about the "Rhode Island System." Updated: 03/24/2022

Who Was Samuel Slater?

Samuel Slater (June 1768-April 1835) was one of the most noted American industrialists at the turn of the 19th century. Born in England, he immigrated to the United States at the beginning of the English Industrial Revolution. In the United States, he became known as one of the preeminent industrialists in the North and would later be known as "the father of the American factory system."


Samuel Slater

Samuel Slater


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.

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Samuel Slater: Personal life and Career

Samuel Slater was an English-American immigrant influential in the early American Industrial Revolution. He used his experience and knowledge to bring information from Great Britain to the United States to largely develop the textile industry. From his early life working in a cotton mill, his business dealings with his brother John, and his career in the textile industry, Samuel Slater would become one of the most influential industrialists in American history.

Early Life

Samuel Slater was born in England in June 1768. The son of a yeoman farmer, he attended school at an early age, but secured a job at a cotton mill at ten years old. Before the Industrial Revolution and the creation of the mill system, most textiles were created with the "putting out" method that allowed workers to work at their own pace in their own homes. The mill style changed this by creating textiles at a previously unheard of rate and completely altering British economics.

After his father's death, Samuel was apprenticed under Jedidiah Strutt, who was the business partner of famed British industrialist Richard Arkwright. Richard Arkwright would be known in Great Britain for his innovations of the mill system and the creation of a better product through a variety of methods. His apprenticeship ended when he was 21 years old. By then, he had extensive knowledge in both Arkwright's organization and manufacturing processes.

The Slater Brothers and Family

Samuel Slater was one of twelve siblings. His father, William Slater, and mother, Elizabeth Burley, were poor yeoman workers from the areas around Derbyshire, England. Many of his siblings worked in factories during this time period, as it was one of the best ways to earn a living at the time.

Though most of Samuel's family members have relatively unknown lives historically, his brother John does play a big part in his eventual rise as an American industrialist. His partnership with his brother would create an American empire of industrialization.

Career

At the end of the 18th century, England was a booming industrial nation. Samuel Slater had worked for Richard Arkwright and various other industrialists in cotton mills for nearly a decade. At the same time, America had begun to take notice and attempt to replicate the British model. Competition was so fierce that the British government made it illegal to sell plans and blueprints to American businessmen.

In 1789, an American industrialist named Moses Brown set out to create a textile mill in Rhode Island and put American industries on the world stage. Using machines created by Richard Arkwright, Moses was unable to get the equipment to function properly. Hearing this, Samuel Slater offered to come to America to teach the process. Before leaving for America, Samuel memorized the plans and processes that made his mentor Arkwright so successful. From this point, Samuel Slater would be known as "Slater the Traitor" in Great Britain.

After working with Moses Brown for nearly three years, the first textile mill was opened in 1793 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Over the next thirty years, Samuel Slater would build and operate thirteen textile mills through New England.

What Did Samuel Slater Invent?

Samuel Slater was an innovator as well as an industrialist. Taking many ideas from his mentors in Great Britain, he streamlined the textile industry and invented a whole new management style. Known as the Slater System, he created a tenement style system to improve his workforce.

Samuel Slater Invention: The Slater System

The Slater System, or the Rhode Island System, was a management style invented by Samuel Slater in the early 19th century. Early factories would have workers using treadmill style machines to create power. Slater redesigned these systems to run on water, rather than manpower. By focusing on water power, Samuel Slater could build numerous factories that had almost unlimited power capabilities. Additionally, this system took advantage of family style values of New England and emphasized family units working together in factories. Best described as a "vertical-integration monopoly," Slater would bring in entire families from across New England.

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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Video Transcript

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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Frequently Asked Questions

Who invented the cotton mill?

Richard Arkwright is considered the inventor of the modern cotton mill. During the British Industrial Revolution, Richard Arkwright changed the putting out system of the textile industry and created the mill system. Samuel Slater took many of these ideas and created the first cotton mill in the United States.

How did Samuel Slater change the factory system?

One of the biggest ways Samuel Slater changed the factory system was the change from manpower to water power. Factories used to rely on workers walking on treadmills to power factories. Samuel Slater changed this to hydroelectric power at the turn of the 19th century.

What is Samuel Slater best known for?

Samuel Slater is best known as being one of the first American industrialists during the American Industrial Revolution. He took existing successful strategies used by the British textile mills and brought them to the United States.

Why is Samuel Slater known as the father of the American industrial revolution?

Samuel Slater immigrated to the United States in the 1790s and brought with him successful textile strategies used by British textile factories. By using his knowledge of successful strategies, he created over 13 mills in the United States and largely started the textile industry in New England.

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