1790 Two Hundred Years Ago

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The new firm of Almy, Brown, and Slater opened its water-powered spinning mill this month at Pawtucket, Rhode Island. During his apprenticeship of nearly seven years in a Derbyshire textile mill, Samuel Slater had mastered the intricacies of Richard Arkwright’s famed cloth-weaving machinery. At twenty he made secret plans to go to America, where knowledge of the spinning mills was so valuable that some state legislatures offered rewards for the Arkwright design. To accept this invitation one required gall and savvy, since the British government had made illegal both the emigration of English textile workers and the exportation of plans for textile machinery. Nevertheless, in 1789 Slater made the sixty-six-day journey to New York disguised as a farmer and carrying Arkwright’s complex design in his head. He had heard that a Quaker businessman in Providence, Rhode Island, wanted to build a spinning mill and wrote him a letter. Moses Brown replied, “If thou canst do this thing, I invite thee to Rhode Island and have the credit and the profit of introducing cotton-manufacture into America.”

He did, with immense consequences. As other mills followed, Slater adapted and simplified Arkwright’s machine until most of the tasks could be—and were—performed by children. Slater’s pirated mills were a portent of both the lights and shadows of the great Industrial Revolution they helped foment.