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John Kay’s flying shuttle speeds up weaving

Posted in Engineering, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Industry, Revolution on Monday, 29 April 2013

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This edited article about John Kay originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 235 published on 16 July 1966.

Weaving with shuttle, picture, image, illustration

A weaver sits at a loom showing the workings of the flying shuttle

Man has been weaving cloth for thousands of years, but until the flying shuttle was invented by John Kay, born on July 16, 1704, the weaver’s craft had hardly changed since the days of Ancient Egypt.

Cloth is woven by passing horizontal threads, called the weft, through alternate vertical threads called the warp. The weft threads were held in a device called a shuttle, which was sent forward through the warp threads by one hand, and returned by the other.

John Kay was the son of a weaver and he had often watched his father swinging the shuttle backwards and forwards by hand. It occurred to him that there must be some easier way of moving the shuttle.

He made experiments and in 1733 took out a patent for a new type of loom, needing only one hand to pass the shuttle backwards and forwards through the warp. He also invented an automatic mechanism which closed up the threads of the weft much more tightly.

Weaving firms quickly realised that Kay’s Flying Shuttle would greatly speed up production, but had no intention of paying for the idea. In court Kay’s claims were upheld, but the legal costs were so heavy that he lost most of his money.

Kay managed to open a factory of his own, but the weavers, fearing the new looms would put many of them out of work, wrecked his workshop.

Kay went to France for a time. He invented a power loom but was too poor to develop it. He returned to England to find the weavers making huge profits out of his invention. He died in poverty in 1764.

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