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Father Of Our Factory System
Young Samuel Slater smuggled a cotton mill out of England—in his head—and helped start America’s Industrial Revolution
April 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 3
Feats of memory, particularly of the kind of memory derided as “photographic”—Tor all the cornucopias of wealth they sometimes pour over television contestants—are looked down on in modern limes, but they have their role in history. Consider, for example, the story of Samuel Slater. It would be impolite tu call him a spy, lor he would not have considered himself one. Furthermore, he was a man of peace. Yet in his own time this cotton spinner’s apprentice achieved with his prodigious memory an effect as great as or greater than any successful military espionage has brought about in our own. For he successfully transplanted the infant Industrial Revolution, which was in many ways an English monopoly, across an ocean to a new country.
To understand Slater’s feat, one must look back to the economic situation of England and America in the days directly after the Colonies had achieved their independence. If Dritain no longer ruled her former colonies, she clung tenaciously to her trade with them. Thanks to her flourishing new textile industry, she was able to sell large quantities of cotton goods in the United States at prices so low there was little incentive left for making cloth over here by the old-fashioned hand methods. To maintain this favorable dependency as long as possible, England went to fantastic lengths to guard the secrets that had mechanized lier cotton industry, and so effective were these measures that America might well have continued solely as an agricultural nation for years, had it not been for Samuel Slater.
Slater was born in ijliB on Ins family’s properly, Holly House, in Derbyshire, England. His lather, William Slater, was an educated, independent farmer and timber merchant, the dose friend and neighbor of Jedediah Strutt, successively farmer, textile manufacturer, and partner of England’s famous inventor. Sir Richard Arkwright, whose spinning frame had revolutionized the manufacture of cotton yarn. Three years alter Samuel Slater’s birth, Strutt had financed Arkwright’s fat lory at Cromford—the world’s earliest authentic cotton mill—where water power replaced humans and animals in moving the machinery, and where the whole operation of spinning yarn could be accomplished for the first lime automatically under one roof. Within five years Arkwriglu’s mills were cmploying over 5,000 workers, and England’s factory system was launched.
It was in this atmosphere of industrial revolution that young Slater grew up. He showed signs of his future mechanical bent at a tender age by making himself a polished steel spindle with which to help wind worsted for his mother, and whenever he had the chance, he would walk over to nearby Cromford or Helper on ihe Derweni River to see the cotton mills which Strutt and Arkwright owned. In 1782 Strult began to erect a large hosiery factory at Milford, a mile from the Slater property, and he asked William Slater’s permission to engage his eldest son as clerk. Slater, who had noticed the ability and inclinations of his younger son, Samuel, recommended him instead, observing that he not only “wrote well and was gocxl at figures” but was also of a decided mechanical bent.
Thus, at the age of fourteen, Samuel Slater went to live and work with Strutt. When William Slater died shortly afterward, in 1783, young Samuel Slater signed his own indenture to learn cotton spinning as an apprentice in Strutt’s factory until the age of 21.
During the early days of his term the boy became so engrossed in the business that he would go for six months without seeing his family, despite the fact that they lived only a mile away, and he would frequently spend his only free clay, Sunday, experimenting alone on machinery. In those clavs millowners had to build all their own machinery, and .Slater acquired valuable experience in its design, as well as its operation, and in the processes of spinning yarn. Even before completing his term of indenture he was made superintendent of Strutt’s new hosiery mill.
But Slater had become concerned about the chances for an independent career in England. Arkwright’s patents having expired, factories had sprung up every where, and Slater could see that to launch out on his own he would need more and more capital to stay ahead of the technical improvements constantly taking place. His attention had been drawn to the United States by an article in a Philadelphia paper saying that a bounty of £100 had been granted’ by the Pennsylvania legislature to a man who had designed a textile machine. Young Slater made up his mind that he would go to the United States and introduce the Arkwright methods there. As his first step, even before his term with Strutt expired, Slater obtained his employer’s permission to supervise the erection of the new cotton works Arkwright was then starting, and from this experience he gained valuable knowledge for the future.
There were, it was true, grave risks to consider. Britain still strictly forbade the export of textile machinery or the designs for it. With Krance entering a period of revolution which might unsettle the economy of the Old World, it was even more important that the large American market be safeguarded for Hritish commerce. As a result, the Arkwright machines and techniques were nowhere in use in America at the time, and various attempts—in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts. Connecticut. Maryland, and South Carolina—to produce satislactory cotton textiles had borne little fruit. Without Arkwright’s inventions it was impossible to make cotton yarn strong enough for the warps needed in hand-loom weaving.