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Richard Arkwright and the rise of the factory system

Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, Industry, Inventions on Tuesday, 29 November 2011

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This edited article about the industrial revolution originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 864 published on  5 August  1978.

Cotton mill, picture, image, illustration

This cotton mill was a part of the early factory system which was soon established following Arkwright’s invention, by C L Doughty

Have you ever wondered why an unmarried woman is called a spinster?

The reason is that before the Industrial Revolution transformed England in the 18th century, the manufacture of wool was a “cottage industry”, which means that instead of going to factories as they would today, people (usually women) produced thread on simple equipment in their own homes. The process of making wool into thread is called “spinning”, which is where the fibres of raw material are wound together to make a thread. Since it was mainly women who were occupied in the industry, they were called spinsters.

However, in 1769 a man named Richard Arkwright decided that it must be possible to produce thread more efficiently. The cottages were often spread out over the countryside and the end product was often widely different in quality.

He therefore made spinning machines driven by water-power, and put several of them in a factory which he built on the River Derwent at Cromford, in Derbyshire. The combination of having several machines under one roof, and the extra power obtained by using water, meant that he was able to make a dramatic increase in the quantity and quality of the thread produced.

Sir Richard Arkwright (he was knighted in 1786) is not so much famous for his invention of a spinning machine (many of the ideas for which he seems to have “borrowed” from elsewhere), as for his introduction of a factory system, without which the Industrial Revolution could not have been achieved. In this, Arkwright was a pioneer. He died in Derbyshire on 3rd August, 1792, leaving a large fortune.

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