Spinning Jenny

Spinning Jenny’s are significantly more efficient spinning wheels, allowing wool to be produced at a much lower price.

Each Jenny did the work of multiple spinners.

The Jenny (slang for Engine in British English) was unwelcome in Hargreaves’ village because it caused yarn prices to decline. Chased by angry tradesmen, he fled from the spinning community of Blackburn to Nottingham.

Hargreaves patented the Jenny July 12, 1770, but still struggled with knockoffs, losing a major court case. He profited not from the machine but, rather, by running a mill in Hockley.

He died in 1778 and his wife was paid £400 for use of the patent.

The Jenny is one of the seminal innovations of the Industrial Revolution and spurred the Luddites.

Seed Drill / Automatic Hoe


Jethro Tull invented a new type of tiller and planter, an automatic hoe. His machine turned soil over and planted seeds, something people had to do by hand before that time.

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No, not that Jethro Tull

Tull was educated as a lawyer. He practiced law for a short while, couldn’t stand the work, and went into farming.

Tull’s farm was what today we call organic; he did not believe in adding any type of fertilizer to the soil, only in using a hoe.

Inspired either by a visit to France, where he went to recover from an illness or possibly his short stint practicing law, Tull refused to spread manure.

Tull published his work, describing both how the hoe and seed drill worked as well as advocating for organic farming methods. He also talked about his struggles with his own workers, who were afraid the hoe would render them jobless.

The Luddites working for Tull were not especially enthused with Tull’s hoe. Note that Luddites are never enthused about automation equipment despite that it historically rarely costs them jobs.

Tull’s hoe never caught on widely in his native England but the hoe became wildly popular in the American colonies. Americans loved the hoe.

Hand hoeing and seeding remained common in England for well over a century after Tull’s invention. Due to the delay, American agriculture quickly overtook England. In later years, most agricultural equipment — including technological breakthroughs — was innovated in the US. Specifically, International Harvester and John Deere derived from a spirit of innovation Americans embraced that the English refused.

After Tull’s death, most of his farm was auctioned off. In the 1800s his farm was excavated and one of his original hoes was found at the bottom of a well. Normally, it’s very bad when a hoe is found at the bottom of a well but, in this case, it was an important archeological find. Tull’s hoe was moved to a museum.

Steam Engine (Newcomen)

The Newcomen steam engine removed water from mines. It worked but was extremely inefficient. Steam was not recycled (re-condensed) so the Newcomen engine required an enormous amount of coal to continually boil water. When used at a coal mine, where scrap coal was essentially free, this cost less than having workers remove water by the bucketful or mules walk in a circle turning a pump.

There were prior steam engines to the Newcomen engine, but none functioned well. Hero, of Alexandria, invented a device in the first century that heats water in the base of a closed device and, once boiling, steam propels the device in a circular motion. The device is little mentioned outside history and it appears too inefficient for any practical use. A commercial pump prior to Newcomen’s was Thomas Savery’s “Miners Friend,” patented 1698. Despite the name, the pump performed poorly and frequently exploded, injuring or killing miners. The Newcomen engine was stable, reliably and safely pumped water.

Newcomen was a Baptist pastor, not an engineer, and historians suggest his purpose in creating the pump was purely financial; he needed funds to maintain his church that struggled in Protestant England. Newcomen named his business Proprietors of the Invention for Raising Water by Fire.

Adding Machine

Image result for pascal

Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician who lived in the 1600s. He is most known for his work in geometry and statistics but is included here for building the first non-abacus adding machine.

Going back briefly, the abacus dates back to at least 300BC. Our earliest cutoff date for innovations is the printing press or the abacus would be included. It is so fast that, until modern computers, people claimed it possible to calculate faster on an abacus than a machine.

Despite the abacus, in the 1640s, Pascal invented a machine called the “Pascaline,” one of the earliest known non-abacus adding machines. German mathematician William Schickard is said to have invented a similar machine earlier, in 1623, though the claim is iffy.

By 1652, Pascal built about 50 Pascaline’s but the value of the adding machine never outweighed the cost. It was simply less expensive to have people do the work than the machine. Furthermore, due to a glitch in French currency at the time — which used a different base system — the machine never quite functioned as intended.

Pascal’s interest in arithmetic might be due to his father’s job as a tax collector.

Pascal’s adding machine demonstrated that machines could do work previously done only by people. While the abacus had a similar function, it still relied on people. Pascal’s adding machine was the first of its kind.

It was also extraordinarily expensive and hiring clerks to compute figures cost far less than a Pascaline. Therefore, very few were manufactured or sold but the core idea of a machine that thinks — that can add and subtract — eventually blossomed into first mechanical computers and later electronic computers.

Later in life, Pascal also tried to create a perpetual motion machine, a machine that outputs more energy than is input. That never succeeded — probably because physicists show it is impossible — but, while experimenting, Pascal invented the roulette wheel.

After a life inventing two machines plus geometrical theorems still in use today, Pascal died of stomach cancer in 1662 at the age of 39.

Stocking Frame (Mechanical Knitter)

The first automated knitting machine; one of the key pieces of equipment that kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

The Stocking Frame copies the hand movements of a tradesperson, knitting far faster than a person could. The machine worked with both wool, which tended to produce coarse but inexpensive fabric, and also silk. When cotton became more common, the Frame knitted inexpensive cotton stockings.

The stocking frame caused a certain amount of social upheaval, leading to the creation of the anti-automation Luddites. This was a group of people who strongly opposed automation, led by the likely mythical Ned Ludd. Luddites play a recurring role through innovations over time, especially innovations related to automation.

Like many inventors, Lee made little money from his innovation and — despite that it would go down in history as a bedrock of the future — he died with little money.

Movable Type Printing Press


Gutenberg’s father was a minor royal and his mother came from a merchant family; they lived in Mainz, Germany. His father was in charge of running an ecclesiastical mint; they created coins. Growing up, Guttenberg was essentially a jeweler. Gutenberg’s father died in 1419, leaving an inheritance but also a problem. Guttenberg’s father was a royal, barring him from the trade guilds; he could not make jewery. However, his mother came from a common line so he was not a royal, making him ineligible to run a mint or anything similar to what his father had done.

Since it was impossible to hold a traditional job, Gutenberg left, moving to Strasbourg, to work on a new innovation. During the 1440s, Gutenberg envisioned a better way to produce books, using movable type. Before his innovation, the state-of-the-art was to carve pages in wooden blocks, each page one block. This was a time-intensive process that required extensive refinishing to clean up the text. The few books produced were extremely expensive.

School teachers and University professors would read books aloud to students, explaining the material as they went along, while students took notes. Individual books were not available to students due to the high cost.

Movable Type

To lower the cost of printing, and books, Gutenberg invented movable individual letters. Arranged into a block these were then pressed onto a page, the printing press.

Gutenberg used his entire, sizable inheritance creating his press and, more importantly, the supporting infrastructure. He built a foundry and hired workers to make the individual pieces of metal type that were flat and consistent enough they could be arranged into a sheet for printing. Special paper and inks were created that could withstand the high pressure were developed. Finally, the press itself needed to be a more consistent overall pressure than presses meant grapes or other foods, where the press was meant to destroy whatever was being pressed.

Gutenberg decided to match the look of books from the era, which were artisanal pieces, crafted with beautiful variably spaced typography and multiple fonts. He created three entirely different variable spaced fonts, including one that could print in a different color. The elegant fonts vastly increased the cost and complexity of both developing and using his printing press. Eventually, Gutenberg ran out of funds and borrowed money to continue development.

By 1450, Gutenberg had returned to Mainz and was printing calendars and indulgences. In 1452 he borrowed more money to fund a new project, printing bibles. Due to the complexity of typesetting, it took Gutenberg years to create a relatively small number of bibles. By 1455 his primary creditor, Fust, either tired of the project or wanted what today would be called a liquidity event and sued Gutenberg for a debt that was by then about 20,000 guilders. Gutenberg lost, and his equipment, including his press and typefaces, were taken.


Despite Gutenberg’s loss, other printers saw his methods and rapidly copied using lower-cost, lower-quality equipment. They realized the multiple typefaces added enormous cost. For example, they could produce fonts for more than three entirely separate presses for the price Gutenberg’s fonts cost for one press. These good enough quality presses are what soon produced mass-market books. Gutenberg never meaningfully profited from his press though he was eventually given a small church pension. Gutenberg died poor. The location of the grave, of the greatest inventor in history, is unknown.

Gutenberg’s press vastly expanded access to printed material ushering in the reformation and the modern era. His press, along with the wheel and fire, is widely regarded as one of the three most important inventions in history.