In­side his­tory

Lan­cashire, eng­land, 1764-1810

All About History - - CONTENTS -

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.

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