- Historic Sites
February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
Slater also showed a talent for directing large enterprises. His job at Strutt’s factory was what would now be called middle management, coming between the owner and the workers, overseeing the mill, and repairing and constructing the machinery. By the time Slater’s apprenticeship ended in 1789, when he was twenty-one, he had mastered all aspects of this new, burgeoning hightech industry.
Freed of his apprenticeship, Slater wanted to emulate his former master and make a fortune in the textile industry on his own. Having little capital, he decided to pursue his self-interest in America, where he knew his talents and skills were in hot demand. Before he left Strutt’s employ, he carefully committed to memory the smallest details of the new spinning equipment, fully intending to use his knowledge of the British textile secrets as a substitute for capital.
Knowing the vigilance of British customs, Slater kept his intentions so secret that he did not even tell his mother of his plans to emigrate until he mailed her a letter from London only a few hours before he boarded ship on September 13, 1789. He listed himself on the manifest as a farm laborer. George Washington could not have known it, of course, but the hopes that had been symbolized by his simple brown suit four months earlier were about to be realized.
Slater arrived in New York on November 18 and soon heard that Moses Brown, a Quaker of Providence, Rhode Island, had some spinning equipment that would not work. Slater wrote him offering his services. Brown, one of the numerous Rhode Island clan for which Brown University is named, replied that he would welcome Slater’s help and offered him all the profits from the machines over and above interest on the capital and depreciation if Slater could make them work. Slater had been right about the demand for his skills. It was a deal he could never have made in England.
The Industrial Revolution began with the British textile industry, and Britain determined to keep the process a secret.
When he arrived in Providence, however, and went to examine the inoperable spinning equipment in nearby Pawtucket, he saw that it was beyond hope. “These will not do,” he told Brown; “they are good for nothing in their present condition, nor can they be made to answer.”
Brown could only have been very disappointed, for he had a large investment in what he had just learned was junk. Nonetheless, he persevered. “Thee said thee could make the machinery,” Brown replied in Quaker fashion; “why not do it?”
Over the next twelve months Slater did exactly that, using the plans he had so carefully smuggled out of England in his head. With carpenters and mechanics unfamiliar with textile equipment, it was a struggle, and at one point Slater almost despaired when the carding machine stubbornly refused to work.
Then, on the twentieth of December, 1790, the first cotton mill in the United States, owned by the firm of Almy, Brown, and Slater, went into operation in Pawtucket. Moses Brown soon wrote proudly to Alexander Hamilton that “mills and machines may be erected in different places, in one year, to make all the cotton yarn that may be wanted in the United States.”
Brown was getting rather carried away. Britain, with its large technological lead and many talented textile machinery designers, would continue to dominate the cotton-goods trade for another century. Brown was right, however, that the Industrial Revolution was now under way in the United States. Soon numerous mills were springing up along New England’s many swift-flowing rivers. By the end of Slater’s life, forty-five years later, cotton spinning was a major New England industry, employing many thousands of people. Samuel Slater was a famous, very wealthy, and greatly respected man.
In 1833, two years before Slater’s death on April 20, 1835, President Andrew Jackson toured New England and paid a call on Pawtucket’s most famous citizen. “I understand,” Jackson told him, that “you have taught us how to spin, so as to rival Great Britain in her manufactures; you set all these thousands of spindles to work, which I have been delighted in viewing, and have made so many happy by a lucrative employment.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Slater. “I suppose that I gave out the psalm, and they have been singing to the tune ever since.”
At the end of his visit, the seventh President of the United States bestowed on the man who had been instrumental in fulfilling the hopes of the first President the honorary title of father of American manufactures.