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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
The two men were in striking contrast. Slater, only 21, was nearly six feet tall and powerfully built, with ruddy complexion and fair hair. Moses Brown, in his soft, broad-brimmed Quaker hat, was well past middle age, of small stature, with a pair of bright, bespectacled eyes set in a benevolent face framed by flowing gray locks. Satisfied from a glance at the Strutt indenture that his young caller was bona fide, Brown took Slater in a sleigh to the little hamlet of Pawtucket. a community consisting of a doxcn or so cottages on both sides of the Dlackstone River, just outside Providence. They stopped at a small clothier’s shop on the river’s bank, close by a bridge which linked Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Here was assembled Brown’s ill-assorted machinery.
Slater took one look and shook his head, his disappointment obvious. Compared to Strutt’s splendid mill this was almost a caricature. He spoke bluntly: “These will not do; they are good for nothing in their present condition, nor can they be made to answer.” Brown urged him to reconsider, to give the machines a try, hut the young Englishman was not to he persuaded. At last, in desperation, the old merchant threw Slater a challenge:
“Thee said thee could make machinery. Why not do it?”
Reluctantly, Slater finally agreed to build a new mill, using such parts of the old as would answer, but only on one condition: that Krown provide a trusted mechanic to make the machinery which Slater would design and that the man be put under bond neither to disclose the nature of the work nor to copy it.
“If I don’t make as good yarn as they do in England,” Slater declared, “I will have nothing for my services, but will throw the whole of what I have attempted over the bridge!” Brown agreed, arranging in addition to pay Slater’s living expenses.
Then the old merchant took his visitor to the cottage of Oziel Wilkinson, an ingenious ironmaster, with whom Slater could board. Wilkinson, also a Quaker, operated a small anchor forge using water power from the river, and there he turned out ships’ chandlery, shovels, scythes, and other tools. As the young Englishman entered the Wilkinson home, his host’s younger daughter shyly scampered out of sight, but Hannah, the elder, lingered in the doorway to look at the stranger. Slater fell in love with her. (Within two years they would be married, and Hannah Slater would later acquire fame in her own right as the discoverer of cotton sewing thread, which she first produced from the fine yarns her husband manufactured.) fn the Wilkinson household young Slater found new parents who helped him overcome his homesickness and encouraged him in the first difficult months.
Part of that winter he spent experimenting with Moses Brown’s crude carding machine, and he was able to improve the quality of cotton fleece it turned out. This, when spun by hand on the jennies, produced a better yarn, but one which was still too weak and uneven to be used as warp in the hand-weaving of cloth. Slater was downhearted; he realized that he must build everything from scratch.
The rest of the winter he spent assembling the necessary materials for constructing the Arkwright machines and processes. He lacked even the tools with which to make the complicated equipment, and he was forced to make many of them himself before any building could commence. Furthermore, without models to copy, he had to work out his own computations for all measurements. One of the most ingenious elements of the Arkwright inventions was the variation in speeds of various parts of the machines. Mathematical tables for these were not available anywhere save in England; Slater had to rely on his own extraordinary memory. Nevertheless, by April, 1790, he was ready to sign a firm partnership agreement to build two carding machines, a drawing and roving frame, and two spinning frames, all to be run automatically by water power. He was to receive one dollar a day as wages, half-ownership in the machinery he built, and, in addition, one-half of the mill’s net profits after it was in operation. Moses Brown had turned over the supervision of his textile investments to William Almy, his son-in-law, and Smith Brown, his cousin, and these two men became Slater’s new partners.
Now, behind shuttered windows in the little clothier’s building on the riverbank, young Slater began to design the first successful cotton mill in America. As he drew the plans with chalk on wood, Sylvanus Brown, an experienced local wheelwright, cut out the parts from sturdy oak and fastened them together with wooden dowels. Young David Wilkinson, Slater’s future brother-in-law and like his father a skilled ironworker, forged shafts for the spindles, rollers for the frames, and teeth in the cards which Pliny Earle, of Leicester, Massachusetts, prepared for the carding machines. Before iron gearwheels and card rims could be made, Slater and Wilkinson had to go to Mansfield, Massachusetts, to find suitable castings. By autumn, working sixteen hours a day, Slater had more than fulfilled his agreement: he had built not two but three carding machines, as well as the drawing and roving frame and the two spinning frames. At last he was ready for a trial.