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By Kat Dibbits on

Richard Arkwright: innovation and controversy

August 2017 marks 225 years since the death of Richard Arkwright. Here, we look at both his entrepreneurship and the controversy that surrounded him.
Portrait of Richard Arkwright
Portrait of Richard Arkwright.
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Today (3 August 2017) marks 225 years since Richard Arkwright’s death. Arkwright is known nowadays for his revolutionary water frame, which mechanised the spinning process, but you might not know that he started out life as a barber in Bolton.

Realising that there was a tidy profit to be made if he could invent a machine that would take over the spinning process and allow mill owners to employ unskilled workers rather than highly skilled ones, Arkwright began to work on a new kind of spinning machine—the water frame—which was patented in 1769. The invention not only made him very rich, it also earned him a knighthood.

Replica of Arkwright's water frame
Replica of Arkwright’s water frame.
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Arkwright developed Cromford Mill, in Derbyshire, into the world’s first water-powered cotton spinning mill. A carding engine used in the mill can be seen in our Textiles Gallery, another of Arkwright’s “inventions”, although in reality it is only an improved version of an earlier machine created by Lewis Paul. Arguments over the validity of Arkwright’s patents would follow him his whole life.

Carding engine, designed by Richard Arkwright and used at Cromford Mill, Derbyshire, c.1800
Carding engine, designed by Richard Arkwright and used at Cromford Mill, Derbyshire, c.1800.
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Arkwright’s inventions were not universally popular—especially among the skilled workers who lost their jobs when mill owners discovered they could be replaced with cheaper unskilled labour, usually women and children. In 1779, arsonists attacked and destroyed Arkwright’s newly-built mill in Chorley, and the entrepreneur was an early figure of hatred for the anti-technology Luddites, who came to prominence in the early 19th century, destroying weaving machinery to protest at the mechanisation of their industry.

Industrial espionage and court cases challenging Arkwright’s many patents were also common, but despite these, Arkwright had amassed a personal fortune of £500,000 by the time of his death, which would be worth more than £300 million today.

Interested in more tales about Manchester’s industrial past? Visit the Objects and Stories section of our website to find out about John Dalton, Beyer Peacock and more.

3 comments on “Richard Arkwright: innovation and controversy

  1. There is no mention of the inventor of the Spinning Mule here which was in fact invented by Samuel Crompton. Crompton sold the copyright to Arkwright for a small sum and died penniless. It’s a shame that Arkwright is always mentioned as the “inventor” of the Spining Mule which revolutionised the cotton industry. Although it’s true he did develop Samuel’s machine and made a fortune as a result.
    I will be visiting Manchester in October and hope to visit the museum and see the cotton weaving/spinning machines in action. My ancestors worked in the cotton mills in Bolton (Lightbown and Sharples) and some were mill owners in Oswaldtwistle (Shaw). I am related to Samuel Crompton, so must have cotton in my blood!

    1. Hi Sara,

      Thanks for your comment. We concentrated on Arkwright for this post as it was originally written to time with an anniversary, but we’re big fans of Samuel Crompton here at the museum – in fact we have a working replica Spinning Mule which is part of our textiles demonstration. Hopefully you’ll be able to see it in action during your visit in October. I’m sad but not surprised that Arkwright benefited from Crompton’s invention – he was a real rogue. I was born in Bolton and there are lots of things to see there about your ancestor as well – Hall i’th Wood has lots of Crompton’s history and stories about the time he spent living there.

  2. And Jedediah Strutt’s machine for ribbing stockings? I’ve yet to work out the inventive debt between Strutt and Arkwright, but I gather a lot of dispute was ameliorated by their joint financial dealings, Strutt being an angel to Arkwright at one point.

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