The Textile Industry
Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, textile manufacture in Great Britain (and the rest of the world) was an activity that took place almost exclusively in private homes. Families would obtain thread from wholesale outlets and then produce cloth by hand in their own houses. Beginning in the 1730s, however, a number of inventors began to develop machines that took over one or more of the hand-knitting operations previously used in the production of textiles.
For example, John Kay invented the first flying shuttle in 1733. This machine consisted of a large frame to which was suspended a series of threads through which a shuttle carrying more thread could be passed. Workers became so proficient with the machine that they could literally make the shuttle "fly" through the thread framework as they wove a piece of cloth.
Over the next half century, other machines were developed that further mechanized the weaving of cloth. These included the spinning jenny, invented by James Hargreaves in 1764; the water frame, invented by Richard Arkwright in 1769; the spinning mule, invented by Samuel Crompton in 1779; the power loom, invented by Edmund Cartwright in 1785; and the cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney in 1792. (Dates for these inventions may be in dispute because of delays between actual inventions and the issuance of patents for them.) One indication of the rate at which technology was developing during this period is the number of patents being issued. Prior to 1760, the government seldom issued more than a dozen patents a year. By 1766, however, that number had risen to 31 and, by 1783, to 64. By the end of the century, it was no longer unusual for more than 100 new patents to be issued annually.
At least as important as the invention of individual machines was the organization of industrial operations for their use. Large factories, powered by steam or water, sprang up throughout the nation for the manufacture of cloth and clothing.
The development of new technology in the textile industry had a ripple effect on society, as is so often the case with technological change. As cloth and clothing became more readily available at more modest prices, the demand for such articles increased. This increase in demand had the further effect, of course, of encouraging the expansion of business and the search for even more efficient forms of technology.
Technological change also began to spread to other nations. By the mid-nineteenth century, as an example, the American inventor Elias Howe had applied the principles of the Industrial Revolution to hand sewing. He invented a machine that, in a demonstration contest in 1846, allowed him to sew a garment faster than five women sewing by hand.
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