Invention of the Water Frame Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Richard Arkwright’s invention of the water frame increased the supply of high-quality yarn and significantly accelerated the development of the factory system, which was a key component of the Industrial Revolution.

Summary of Event

When Sir Richard Arkwright developed his water frame, the weaving of cotton Cotton industry cloth was already a rapidly developing industry in England. The joint tasks of spinning cotton fiber into thread and then weaving the thread into cloth were both accomplished in private homes. Textile factories did not yet exist. Numerous entrepreneurs and inventors were searching for ways to gain a comparative advantage in order to improve their profit margins. [kw]Invention of the Water Frame (1767-1771) [kw]Frame, Invention of the Water (1767-1771) [kw]Water Frame, Invention of the (1767-1771) Water frames Textile industry [g]England;1767-1771: Invention of the Water Frame[1830] [c]Inventions;1767-1771: Invention of the Water Frame[1830] [c]Science and technology;1767-1771: Invention of the Water Frame[1830] [c]Manufacturing;1767-1771: Invention of the Water Frame[1830] Arkwright, Sir Richard Kay, John Highs, Thomas Strutt, Jedediah Hargreaves, James Boulton, Matthew

A number of technological improvements prepared the way for Arkwright’s invention. In 1733, John Kay had patented the flying shuttle, which greatly improved the efficiency of weavers. About 1764, James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, a hand-powered machine that operated several spindles simultaneously. The latter machine’s major limitation was that its thread was not strong enough to be used for warp (thread extending lengthwise in a loom), but could only be used for weft (the crossways yarn). Still, Hargreaves’s invention was the first significant improvement upon the spinning wheel. It turned out to be impossible to keep the innovations of Kay and Hargreaves secret, and textile manufacturers throughout northern England surreptitiously used their devices without any regard to patent rights.

Arkwright began his career as an apprentice barber and paruke maker. In 1755, he set up his own shop in Deansgate. After acquiring a secret method for dyeing hair, he hired a skilled wig maker and spent much time traveling through the country to purchase human hair for the business. In his travels, Arkwright had contact with spinners and weavers. When he moved to the town of Leigh, in Lancashire, he learned that Thomas Highs, with the assistance of a clockmaker named John Kay (no relation to the inventor of the flying shuttle), had built an experimental spinning machine. The fashion of wearing wigs was on the decline, and Arkwright was looking for other means to earn his livelihood.

Arkwright had an aptitude for both technology and practical business. He was well aware that the technology of weaving cloth was more advanced than that of spinning thread, creating a bottleneck in the supply chain for the textile industry. The result was a great demand for high-quality yarn to be used as warp. Taking advantage of his knowledge of the experiments of Highs and others, Arkwright conceived the design for a more sophisticated spinning frame. Needing technical assistance to construct such a devise, he employed the clockmaker Kay and two other skilled artisans, and together they assembled a working model in 1767.

This initial model made use of four pairs of rollers that rotated at different speeds, thereby allowing the spindles to twist the yarn to the required tightness. The yarn thus produced was of a higher quality than that produced by Hargreaves’s spinning jenny. Although the small prototype model was operated by hand, Arkwright envisioned that machines based on the design could be expanded in size and driven by either horses or water power. His vision for building a large-scale enterprise was probably influenced by Matthew Boulton’s manufacturing plants in Birmingham.

Sir Richard Arkwright’s water frame, used in the textile industry, was a spinning machine powered by water.

(Library of Congress)

Arkwright applied for a patent for the spinning machine in 1768, and he obtained patent number 931 on July 3, 1769. Thomas Highs would later claim that Arkwright and Kay had stolen his ideas, and a court jury would support Highs’s accusation. Arkwright’s method of roller spinning, moreover, was similar to a patent devised by Lewis Paul in 1738. Even though Paul’s machine had been utilized only briefly, it is entirely possible that Arkwright had some knowledge of its basic principles.

In 1768, Arkwright moved to Nottingham, a center of cotton manufacturing. There, he entered into partnership with John Smalley and David Thornley, leasing some buildings in order to operate several spinning machines that were worked by horse power. The operation was moderately successful. Although Arkwright’s thread was not as strong as that made by traditional spinning wheels, it was suitable for warp. At first, Arkwright’s thread was used primarily for making stockings. About this time, Arkwright met Jedediah Strutt, who had previously invented a machine for manufacturing ribbed stockings. Strutt recognized the potential of Arkwright’s operation and agreed to provide financial assistance.

Arkwright and his associates decided to experiment with large mills driven by water wheels. In 1771, they erected a factory on a fast-moving stream that flowed into the Derwert River in the small village of Cromford, in Derbyshire. Because the spinning machines in Cromford relied on water power, they quickly became known as water frames. Within a decade, the Cromford mill would be six stories high, and additional mills would be added as well. The operation would grow to employ eight hundred workers. In the village, Arkwright built houses for the workers, as well as a hotel, a market, and a church.

Arkwright continued to expand his business operations. He participated in the construction of several textile mills in Lancashire and Scotland. He and his employees constantly made improvement in the design of the water frame. He licensed his water frame in units of one thousand spindles, which forced the licensees to use large, centrally powered production centers. In 1775, Arkwright was granted a second patent for a carding machine, which prepared cotton, silk, and wool for spinning. By 1778, more than three hundred Arkwright-type factories were operating in England. Even though his patent for the water frame was revoked, he was knighted for his contributions to the cotton industry in 1786. He died a very wealthy man at Willersley Castle in Cromford.


Except for James Watt’s improvement of the steam engine, Sir Richard Arkwright’s water frame was probably the most important industrial innovation of the eighteenth century. Because its yarn was much stronger than that of the spinning jenny, it helped make the mass production Mass production;cloth of cloth possible. Driven by water power rather than human muscle, moreover, the water frame significantly decreased the cost of yarn. Although the device initially put many traditional spinners out of work, it eventually increased employment based on growth in exports and the consumption of textile products.

Arkwright is considered to be the world’s first great industrialist, and he is often called the father of modern industrial factories. Because of the water frame’s size and its need for great power, it could only be operated in large buildings, not in private homes. The relatively complex machine enhanced efficiency, thus providing greater profits to investors. The invention represented a major step in the development of the factory system and industrial capitalism.

Critics of modern industrial organization correctly observe that most workers in Arkwright’s mills were poorly paid and lived in squalid conditions. By bringing a large number of people into an industrialized setting, Arkwright created living conditions that were frequently worse than those in the countryside. Since water frames would later be powered by steam engines, moreover, the devices contributed to the growth of pollution from the burning of coal and other fuels.

Defenders of Arkwright, on the other hand, argue that his contribution to the process of modernization gradually helped improve the living standards for people in general. As proof, they observe that in the modern world, only a handful of people seem to want to return to the living conditions that existed before the Industrial Revolution.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baines, Edward. History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain. Reprint. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1966. A standard account of the great changes in the cotton industry during the eighteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feldman, Anthony, and Peter Ford. Scientists and Inventors. New York: Facts On File, 1979. Includes essays on 155 major innovators on double-page spreads with illustrations and diagrams to explain the achievement of each.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitton, R. S. Arkwrights: Spinners of Fortune. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. The only scholarly biography of Arkwright, presenting him as a genius responsible for a new industrial society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitton, R. S., and Wadsworth, A. P. The Strutts and the Arkwrights. Reprint. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1968. Includes a detailed account of Arkwright’s life and career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hobsbawn, Eric. Industry and Empire. New York: New Press, 1999. Analysis of Britain’s rise as the first industrial power, written by an outstanding left-wing historian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mantoux, Paul. The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Probably the best general history ever written about the beginning of the factory system and other aspects of the Industrial Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pawson, Eric. The Early Industrial Revolution: Britain in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Harper and Row, 1979. A good general account of the technological and economic transformations of the century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rowland, K. T. Eighteenth-Century Inventions. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1974. Useful collection of relatively short descriptions of 130 major inventions with illustrations and suggested readings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Usher, Abbott P. A History of Mechanical Inventions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966. A standard source that includes an excellent chapter on the history of machinery in the textile industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walton, Perry. The Story of Textiles. New York: Tudor, 1925. A well-written survey with a useful summary of Arkwright’s career.

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Categories: History