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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
Enterprising Yankees undertook all kinds of ingenious attempts to smuggle out modern machines or drawings. Even the American minister to France was involved in some of them: machinery would be quietly purchased in England, dismantled, and sent in pieces to our Paris legation for transshipment to the United States in boxes labeled “glassware” or “farm implements.” British agents and the Royal Navy managed to intercept almost all such shipments, however, and skilled workers who attempted to slip away with drawings or models were apprehended on the high seas and brought back. Passengers leaving England for American ports were thoroughly searched by customs agents before boarding ship.
Slater knew of these handicaps and determined to take along nothing in writing save his indenture papers. Even these he was careful to conceal. As the time of his departure drew near he did not reveal his plans even to his family, telling his mother only that he was taking a trip to London. On September 1, 1789, in the warm sunlight of late summer, he cast one last look at the pleasant meadows and orchards of Holly House and set off through the lovely Derbyshire countryside.
In London he decided to spend a few days sight-seeing, inasmuch as this was to be his first and last visit to the capital. Then, alter posting a letter home revealing his intended journey, he boarded ship for New York, assuming the guise of a farmer to escape detection. The role was not difficult for the son of a Derbyshire yeoman, and except for the hidden indenture there was nothing Io link the young man with the cotton textile industry. But he was carrying with him in a very remarkable memory the complete details of a modern cotton mill.
After a passage of 66 days, Slater’s ship reached New York. He had originally intended to go to Philadelphia, but when he learned of the existence of the New York Manufacturing Company on Vesey Street in downtown Manhattan, he showed his indenture and got a job there instead. The company had recently been organized to make yarns and cloth, but the yarn was linen and the machinery, hand-operated, was copied from antiquated English models. This was a far cry from the factories Slater had supervised in Derbyshire, and he was unimpressed.
Fortunately, about this time, the newcomer happened to meet the captain of a packet sailing between New York and Providence. Rhode Island, and from him learned of the interest in textile manufacturing shown by a wealthy, retired merchant of Providence, Moses Hrown, later to become one of the founders of Brown University. A converted Quaker and a man of large imagination and business acumen, Brown had invested considerable cash in two rough, hand-operated spinning frames and a crude carding machine as well as in a couple of obsolete “jennies.” lint all his attempts to produce cotton yarns had ended in failure, and he could find little use for his expensive machinery. Such was the situation when he received a letter from Slater:
New York, December 2d, 1789
S IR ,—
A few days ago I was informed that you wanted a manager of cotton spinning , etc., in which business I Halter myself that I can give the greatest satisfaction, in making machinery, making good yarn, either for stockings or twist , as any that is made in England: as I have had opportunity, and an oversight of Sir Richard Arkwright’s works, and in Mr. Strutt’s mill upwards of eight years. If you are not provided for, should be glad to serve yon: though I am in the New York manufactory, and have been for three weeks since I arrived from England. But we have but one card, two machines , two spinning jennies, which I think are not worth using. My intention is to erect a perpetual card and spinning . (Meaning the Arkwrighl patents). If you please to drop a line respecting the amount of encouragement you wish to give, by favor of Captain Brown, you will much oblige, sir, your most obedient humble servant.
S AMUEL S LATER
N.B.—Please to direct to me at No. 37, Golden Hill, New York.
Slater’s letter fired the shrewd Quaker’s imagination, and he hastened to reply, declaring that he and his associates were “destitute of a person acquainted with water-frame spinning” and offering Slater all the profits I’roni successful operation of their machinery over and above interest on the capital invested and depreciation charges. His invitation concluded: “If the present situation does not come up to what thon wishes, and, from thy knowledge of the business, can be ascertained of the advantages of the mills, so as to induce thee to come ami work ours, and have the credit as well as the advantage of perfecting the first water-mill in America, we should be glad to engage thy care so long as they can be made profitable to both, and we can agree.”
Tempted and flattered, and assuming that the Providence operation needed only an experienced overseer to make it a success, Slater decided to accept. He took a boat in January, 1790, reached Providence on the eighteenth of the month, and immediately called on Moses Brown.