Water Frame Spinner / Modern Factory

Richard Arkwright’s Water Frame Spinner created factories that did not require highly skilled labor. Women and children, with no training, worked in factories that churned out low-cost good enough quality fabric at high volumes. This vastly lowered the cost of fabric.

Arkwright was from a poor family: his father was a tailor. He improved on prior technology and built a better water-powered carding engine that he patented in 1775.

Combining the engine with other innovations he created a new business model, a factory that required little skill. To lower labor costs, he exclusively employed women and children as laborers. This innovation ー building a factory that runs on unskilled labor ー is Arkwright’s most important contribution.

Arkwright rapidly expanded, adding more mills, and acquiring more patents. However, his most important innovation remained factories run by water (and, starting in 1777, Watt steam engines) staffed by unskilled labor.

Six-year-olds were eligible for employment at Arkwright mills. This rule was flexible and some workers were younger. Arkwright’s insatiable appetite for unskilled labor employed entire villages. Large families moved to the mills, encouraged by Arkwright’s need for laborers. This created the “company town” where Arkwright owned everything.

In 1785, Arkwright’s patents were invalidated because they were ruled to be copies of existing technology. Despite that, he was knighted in 1786 and died in 1792 at age 59 with £500,000, a fortune.

Technology exports to the US were prohibited due to the revolution. Nevertheless, Samuel Slater smuggled Arkwright’s technology to America in 1789 and launched US textile mills. The first was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1790.         

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.

Coke Fueled Blast Furnace / Pig Iron


Abraham Darby used Coke instead of coal to fire blast furnaces, making the production of iron from pig iron (a weak iron), much more economical. Coke burns significantly hotter than coal which, combined with his new design to concentrate the heat, his factory was significantly more efficient than prior methods. He created the Bristol Brass Company to commercialize his method.

Interestingly, Darby initially struggled due to a relatively low demand for iron. However, Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the Newcomen steam engine vastly increased the demand for iron. Along with Newcomen then Watt’s steam engines later, Darby’s furnace is a significant contributor to the first Industrial Revolution.

Working at his plants was terrible. Child labor was common. Workers were often injured or died from burns. Carbon monoxide poisoning was also a common cause of death. It was filthy, hot, dangerous work; few workers lived to 40.

Darby himself died at 38 with his affairs a mess. Creditors took the business. However, his brother eventually regained control and his sons would go on to take over the business.

Over time, Henry Cort improved the efficiency of Darby’s process, using rolling and puddling to more efficiently purify the iron. Before Cort, workers would have to hammer the hot metal with a hammer which was both inefficient, dangerous, and hot work. Cort’s method involved rolling the molten metals which was also dangerous but about 15 times faster. Since less time was required, costs were lower and fewer workers were injured.

Finally, in 1828, James Neilson modified the Darby furnace recycling exhaust heat to preheat incoming air. This required substantially less coke, lowering costs.

The lower-cost iron opened creative uses for the metals. Early uses included tableware. Eventually, iron became vital for steam engines. Finally, the iron was being used to construct bridges. Of course, iron remained useful for making weapons just as it had since ancient times.

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.