Kay Invents the Flying Shuttle

John Kay’s flying shuttle allowed a single weaver to produce fabrics of any width, alleviating the need for two weavers to cooperate on unusually wide fabrics. The invention also lent itself in principle to mechanization, helping to begin the mechanization of the textile industry that constituted the first phase of the Industrial Revolution in England.

Summary of Event

The eighteenth century saw the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Industrial Revolution;England in which the manufacturing industries, starting with the textile industry, Textile industry became mechanized. Machines;Industrial Revolution Historians have debated for many years why this revolution occurred first in England. Because a major hallmark of the Industrial Revolution was the application of mechanical power in place of human power, Mechanization of labor
Labor;mechanization of part of the explanation lies in the particular inventions that made this mechanization possible. John Kay’s invention of the flying shuttle, for example, contributed in an important way to the process of industrial mechanization. [kw]Kay Invents the Flying Shuttle (1733)
[kw]Shuttle, Kay Invents the Flying (1733)
[kw]Flying Shuttle, Kay Invents the (1733)
[kw]Invents the Flying Shuttle, Kay (1733)
Flying shuttles
[g]England;1733: Kay Invents the Flying Shuttle[0820]
[c]Inventions;1733: Kay Invents the Flying Shuttle[0820]
[c]Manufacturing;1733: Kay Invents the Flying Shuttle[0820]
[c]Science and technology;1733: Kay Invents the Flying Shuttle[0820]
Kay, John
Kay, Robert

John Kay was born on July 16, 1704, at the Park, in Walmersley, near Bury, Lancashire, England. There is some indication that his father, who owned a woolen factory in Colchester, sent him abroad for his education. By 1730, however, he was located in Bury, making reeds and other components of woolen looms. Among his other accomplishments, Kay improved upon the reeds used to guide the thread in looms by making them of metal rather than cane, which had been used previously. These new reeds quickly came into general use among woolen weavers, because they substantially improved the quality of the fabric’s texture by ensuring uniformity of the weave.

At the beginning of the 1730’s, the preindustrial method of weaving Weaving mills was still in use. Yarn, called the weft (as opposed to the warp, the threads that were permanently strung across the loom), was wound on shuttles that were thrown from one hand to another across the loom. This use of both hands by the weaver was time-consuming. The method also restricted the width of cloth that could be woven by a single weaver to about thirty inches, because it required a weaver to be able to reach both sides of the loom at once. If a wider fabric was desired, two weavers had to sit side by side at the loom and throw the shuttle to each other.

Kay determined to improve weaving techniques by redesigning the shuttle. He reshaped the shuttle, fitted it with tiny wheels that could track its progress across the loom, and reinforced its edges with metal to reduce wear. He also developed a “picker,” a device that could start the shuttle on its path across the loom with the pull of a cord. In the existing method, the yarn that had been thrown across the loom on the shuttle was pulled tight against its predecessor with a “layer” that was activated after each pass of the shuttle. Kay created a grooved guide for the “layer,” so that it always exerted the same force on the emerging cloth. These improvements meant that a weaver needed only one hand to operate the loom. The “picker” could be activated just by pulling on its cord. Kay’s innovations also cut in half the amount of time required to produce a piece of cloth while simultaneously reducing the degree of skill required to do so. Weavers, members of an ancient craft who carefully guarded their status as skilled practitioners, were therefore threatened by Kay’s invention.

In 1733, Kay took out a patent on his device, which he called the “fly-shuttle.” The device was adopted by most of the textile producers in the north of England, who at that time produced mostly woolen cloths. Kay tried to collect royalties from the woolen manufacturers of Yorkshire, but they resisted paying. Accordingly, Kay took them to court, and although he won his lawsuits, he expended nearly all his resources on these legal battles. He appealed to Parliament, hoping to get legislative action that would restore his finances, but was unsuccessful in this effort.

Kay’s invention also aroused deep hostility among the ordinary weavers of Yorkshire and Lancashire, who saw this mechanical improvement as diminishing their work opportunities. In 1753, a mob assaulted his house at Bury, destroying everything. Kay himself only barely escaped. He later moved to France, where he found occasional financial support from the French government, which commissioned him to introduce English practices to the French textile industry. He died in France, possibly in the winter of 1780-1781.

Kay appeared to have had many more ideas for inventions that would assist the textile industry. His patent for the fly-shuttle, for instance, included a device that would improve the carding of wool by aligning the fibers more uniformly. In 1746, he invented a totally automated “small ware” loom, but it appears never to have been produced. Early in life, he had invented a device for handling mohair so as to make mohair yarn more uniform. His son, Robert Kay, apparently shared his inventive talent, for in 1760 he invented a device for sorting shuttles carrying different colors of warp thread, so that they could be used uniformly to produce a pattern.


Kay’s invention, which continued to be used well into the nineteenth century, was the first of a long succession of labor-saving developments that characterized the Industrial Revolution. The automatic feature of the flying shuttle enabled weavers to double their productivity, and it caused them to lose part of their status as skilled laborers. The shuttle thereby reduced labor costs dramatically, setting in motion a process that has continued into the twenty-first century. Output increased enormously, especially when devices like Kay’s were employed in the manufacture of cotton textiles. Prices could be kept low, because the process was increasingly automated, and the need for workers was kept down. The product could also be sold more widely, because it cost less to produce.

Because Kay’s invention reduced the need for labor in the woolen industry, he aroused substantial resentment among the workers, as a mob attack on his house illustrates. It was this same kind of reaction, early in the next century, that earned the recalcitrant workers the name Luddites, Luddites a reaction that has rarely proved able to prevent technological and industrial advances. The flying shuttle, moreover, while still operated by hand, was in principle capable of being mechanized in just the way that Luddites despised, and it represented a first step toward the mechanization of textile factories in general.

By speeding up the weaving process, Kay’s device stimulated efforts to improve the spinning of yarn. This stimulation of the spinning industry resulted in the inventions of the spinning jenny and the spinning mule. The increased output these inventions made possible both lowered the cost of textile production and set in motion efforts to automate weaving further. Kay’s work is an outstanding example of the technical inventiveness that underlay the Industrial Revolution.

Further Reading

  • Cardwell, Donald. Wheels, Clocks, and Rockets: A History of Technology. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. An excellent survey of important inventions; includes a simplified drawing of Kay’s flying shuttle.
  • Landes, David S. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969. One of the classics on the Industrial Revolution; contains details on Kay’s background.
  • MacLeod, Christine. Inventing the Industrial Revolution: The English Patent System, 1660-1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A detailed history of the English patent system, with a number of details about Kay’s attempts to enforce his patent.
  • Mokyr, Joel. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. One of the best books on the interrelationship between technology and economics by the dean of U.S. economic historians.
  • Usher, Abbott Payson. A History of Mechanical Inventions. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954. The classic book on the mechanical inventions of modern technological society, with a detailed description of Kay’s flying shuttle.

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