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.