Cartwright Patents the Steam-Powered Loom

The production of a working power-operated loom was a key step in the mechanization of textile manufacture. Although power looms did not come into general use in England until after 1822, Cartwright’s original model paved the way for future refinements, and the basic design remained unchanged until the middle of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

Early in 1785, Edmund Cartwright, an Anglican clergyman with no connection whatsoever to textile manufacture, was dining with some friends at Malden, near the center of the Lancashire cotton industry. Cotton industry A few years previously, the introduction of Sir Richard Arkwright’s cotton spinning frame Water frames
Spinning technology had enabled manufacturers to produce high-quality cotton thread very cheaply. The friends worried that the products of this burgeoning mechanized cotton spinning industry would be increasingly exported to the Continent, where labor was cheaper, and that English handloom weavers and their employers would suffer. The owners of weaving mills Weaving mills proposed petitioning Parliament to ban exporting cotton thread. When Cartwright suggested mechanizing weaving Machines;weaving as an alternative, the mill owners were skeptical, reasoning based on their experience that weaving was too complex and skilled a process to be accomplished by machine. [kw]Cartwright Patents the Steam-Powered Loom (Apr., 1785)
[kw]Loom, Cartwright Patents the Steam-Powered (Apr., 1785)
[kw]Steam-Powered Loom, Cartwright Patents the (Apr., 1785)
[kw]Patents the Steam-Powered Loom, Cartwright (Apr., 1785)
Steam-powered loom[Steam powered loom]
Power looms
Textile industry
Machines;textile manufacturing
Industrial Revolution;textiles
Steam engines;textile industry
[g]England;Apr., 1785: Cartwright Patents the Steam-Powered Loom[2630]
[c]Inventions;Apr., 1785: Cartwright Patents the Steam-Powered Loom[2630]
[c]Science and technology;Apr., 1785: Cartwright Patents the Steam-Powered Loom[2630]
[c]Manufacturing;Apr., 1785: Cartwright Patents the Steam-Powered Loom[2630]
Cartwright, Edmund
Cartwright, John
Radcliffe, William
Arkwright, Sir Richard

Cartwright returned home to his parsonage in Leicestershire and set to work to prove them wrong. Working with a local blacksmith, he was able to produce a working power-operated loom. The first model, patented in April, 1785, was a cumbersome affair. Worked by means of a hand-crank, it required the strength of two men to operate. Warping and cloth uptake were still done by hand, and machine-spun yarn was not strong enough for the warp threads. Although this first power loom realized no savings in labor Labor;and manufacturing[manufacturing] or production time relative to contemporary hand looms, it proved that mechanization Mechanization of labor of weaving was possible. It set the stage for further refinements by Cartwright and others, which over the ensuing two decades resulted in a commercially viable mechanism.

Not long after Cartwright obtained the patent, his wife Alice died, leaving him with six children to support and a substantial inheritance, including two houses in Doncaster, in the center of the Yorkshire wool industry. Wool industry Living now among wool makers, he consulted with weavers and loom-builders, made many modifications to his original design, and in 1790 persuaded his brothers, John and George Cartwright, to provide the startup capital for a loom manufacturing concern. The owner of Knott’s Mills in Manchester contracted to purchase and run up to four hundred of the new looms and had actually installed two dozen of them when his mill burned to the ground. Arson was suspected, and no other manufacturer was willing to take a risk on the new technology.

Cartwright also set up a cotton mill Cotton industry of his own in Doncaster, with twenty power looms run first by a bull and later (1789) by a steam engine. Steam engines;textile industry The mechanized looms produced high-quality cotton cloth at about four times the rate of a skilled hand-loom weaver, not a sufficient savings in labor to compensate for increased startup costs. The concern never repaid its investment, and it closed in 1793, leaving Cartwright in severe financial difficulties. A power-operated wool-combing system, which initially was expected to be more commercially profitable, likewise proved disappointing, realizing a tremendous saving in labor, but only for the coarsest grades of wool. Patent royalties brought in some income, but a combination of patent infringement and the slow rate of adoption meant that Cartwright never realized much profit from his invention. The original loom patent expired in 1803, just as commercially viable models were beginning to come on the market.

Though Cartwright never prospered as a direct result of the invention for which he is best remembered, the remainder of his long life was hardly a failure. In 1809, a consortium of Manchester manufacturers successfully petitioned Parliament to award him a grant of £10,000 for his services to the British nation. With this substantial sum he purchased a farm and devoted the ensuing years to experimental agriculture. He produced several minor inventions related to agricultural machinery. His home became a meeting place for inventors and innovators. He experimented with steam engines and engaged in a lengthy correspondence with the American inventor Robert Fulton, Fulton, Robert who credited him with having valuable input in the development of the first steamship.

Cartwright’s original loom was ahead of its time. The art of machining had not progressed to the point where all of the delicate mechanisms required for coordinating the many separate processes that go into weaving could be mass-produced. The invention of the screw-lathe Lathes (1796) helped facilitate all branches of machine manufacture. William Radcliffe, founder of Manchester’s first commercially successful power weaving establishment, contributed the dressing frame, a mechanical method of setting up warps, and an improved cloth uptake mechanism. Together with William Horrock’s Horrock, William variable batten-speed motion (1813) and Robert Miller’s Miller, Robert cam-driven shedding principle (1796), the catalog of improvements to looms finally resulted in the first truly practical power loom, built by Richard Roberts Roberts, Richard in 1822.

The introduction of power weaving in Britain was hampered by social as well as technological factors. A burgeoning population, growing export markets, the tremendous expansion of cotton cultivation, and the mechanization of cotton cleaning, combing, and spinning, created thousands of skilled jobs for hand-loom weavers, who served a lengthy apprenticeship and expected to earn (by eighteenth century standards, at least) high wages. Though barred from forming unions and in most constituencies unable to vote, the hand-loom weavers, some 200,000 strong in 1812, constituted a potent political force.

The introduction of power looms potentially signaled a decrease in total employment in the industry and certainly meant that skilled male workers could be replaced by women Women;laborers and children. Children;as laborers[laborers] Workmen fought back by attacking machines and establishments that introduced them. Faced with the threat of sabotage, Industrial sabotage a technology whose labor-saving abilities were more potential than actual, and a surplus of skilled workers, employers found it easier to reduce wages than to introduce machines. The worst outbreaks of machine-breaking occurred during a wartime crisis in 1812-1813 and targeted several other inventions in addition to the power loom; however, the problem was sporadic in the 1790’s and continued until about 1820. Industrial sabotage was one reason for the longer lag time between invention and wholesale adoption of technology in weaving, as compared to spinning, a less skilled occupation that had always been the provenance of women and children.


Of the many literal and figurative revolutions that convulsed Europe and North America in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution arguably had the most profound effect on the mass of people who experienced it, and it reshaped the political, economic, and social life of subsequent generations. In its earlier stages, it was a revolution primarily of textile manufacture. Cartwright’s power loom played a key role in the process, notwithstanding the slow rate of adoption. Had a working power loom not existed, there would have been little incentive for the refinements that followed.

During the protracted Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) and the depression that followed (1815-1821), incentives for expanding textile production were few, but the stage was set. In 1812, fewer than 2,000 power looms operated in Britain; by 1833, their number had expanded to more than 100,000. The average power loom’s output then exceeded that of a hand-loom weaver by a factor of twelve to one, ensuring British supremacy in the manufacture of cheap cotton fabric against all competitors except the United States, where mechanization, piggybacking on and improving upon British inventions, proceeded very rapidly after 1814.

Britain’s appetite for raw cotton and search for markets for the finished product helped drive imperial expansion. Supplying the mills of Lowell and Manchester fueled expansion of slavery in the United States, as an institution declining due to economic factors in the 1790’s abruptly became immensely profitable.

The immediate social impact of mechanized weaving was largely negative. Mechanization concentrated the textile industry in large industrial towns plagued by pollution generated by coal-fired steam engines. Machines allowed a child to do the work of an adult, and increasingly it required the combined wages of all of the members of a family, working long hours, to sustain that family at a bare subsistence level. The economic advantages to manufacturers and the nation at large were well established by 1833; it took several more decades before the social costs began to be addressed through legislation and individual business practice.

Further Reading

  • Dunwell, Steve. The Run of the Mill. Boston: David R. Godine, 1978. The focus of this illustrated account is the early history of the textile industry in Massachusetts; it contains a thorough account of the mechanical challenges and the various designs of early power looms.
  • Mathew, H. C. G., and Brian Harrison, eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. This multivolume set includes detailed biographies of Edmund and John Cartwright and William Radcliffe. It is an invaluable source for biographies of obscure British historical personages.
  • O’Brien, Patrick. “The Micro Foundations of Macro Invention: The case of Reverend Edmund Cartwright.” Textile History 28, no. 2 (1997): 201-233. Good for describing the process of invention and the complexities of capitalizing technology in nineteenth century Britain.
  • Reid, Robert William. Land of Lost Content: The Luddite Revolt, 1812. London: Heinemann, 1986. Aimed at the general reading public. Describes the social consequences of the mechanization of weaving, and some of the barriers to industrialization.

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