Lancashire, england, 1764-1810
How did the Spinning Jenny work?
James Hargreaves may have been an illiterate weaver but he proved himself to be one of the great inventors of his generation. His Spinning Jenny, which was invented in 1764 and patented in 1770, replaced the traditional spinning wheel that had been used for centuries and paved the way for the Industrial Revolution.
Laboriously operated by hand in people’s homes, spinning wheels had long been the backbone of a flourishing ‘cottage industry’ in northern England but they could only spin one thread of cotton at a time.
Cloth merchants would provide the necessary raw cotton and pay a piecework rate to have it turned into cloth. The Spinning Jenny, however, allowed workers to operate eight or more spools at once, boosting productivity.
It was not long before merchants established ‘Jenny shops’ and ‘manufactories’ where they could spin wool en masse. However, the machine was not universally popular. As the Spinning
Jenny kept up with the textile industry’s demands, the price of yarn fell, forcing weavers to accept lower wages. Hargreaves was forced to flee to Nottingham in 1768 as angry workers broke into his home and destroyed his machines. But the era of domestic spinning was over.
Even so, the Spinning Jenny did not last. While the machine led to greater scaling, its underlying process was the same as the traditional spinning wheel, relying on skilled labour to operate it, while only producing a weak, coarse thread.
Richard Arkwright not only refined the process so it produced stronger thread, but he hit upon the idea of powering the device with a water wheel. From this one central source of power, he could drive a whole network of machines.
While this meant he employed nearly 600 people Nottingham and Cromford in the 1770s, they didn’t require the same technical ability, so he could pay them significantly less. The water frame was then replaced by Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule and, in turn, the power loom as a new era of mechanisation dawned.