concerning the secret of silk spinning; two men named Kay; a child called Jenny; the breaking of frames; the great Cotton War between Calcutta and Lancashire; and the violent resentments of stocking knitters

THE CITY OF LIVORNO sits at the northern end of Italy’s resort-spotted Etruscan coast, overlooking the Ligurian Sea. At its center is the original town: a walled compound, made up of two separate forts that in the year 1715 were enough for Livorno to serve as one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean. Livorno’s walls, its fortifications, even its streets and canals, were a sixteenth-century bequest from the city’s Florentine rulers, the Medici family, who had also bequeathed to the city its cosmopolitan air and legendary hospitality to foreigners. The city’s constitution of 1606 granted privileges and immunities to immigrants, including Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Dutch, and Muslims; it even attracted a large number of traders and artisans from England, who, in the distinctive manner of English away from home, renamed it Leghorn.*

The name stuck, in Anglophone countries, for centuries—a style of hat and breed of chicken still carry the name—because of Livorno’s large and well-known expatriate community. The profile of that community was probably never higher than in 1822, when both Byron and Shelley were residents, but a hundred years before, another Briton had made himself at home in the city, with less publicity, but more significance. John Lombe was his name; and what brought him to Livorno was silk.

LOMBE WAS THE SON of a woolen weaver1 from Norwich, and a onetime apprentice to another weaver in Derbyshire, where in 1702 he took employment as a mechanic for a small silk mill owned by a lawyer named Thomas Cotchett. England by then had tried and failed half a dozen times to start up its own silk industry, less from any deficiency in raw materials than from lack of the technology required to make its production economical. But neither Cotchett nor Lombe was prepared to give up on the profits to be made from selling silk cloth and garments—profits far greater than for any other fabric.

By the eighteenth century, silk had been commanding high prices for millennia; during the eighth century BCE, silk was one of the Zhou Dynasty’s most widely cultivated “crops,” with tens of thousands of farmers feeding white mulberry leaves to domesticated silkworms with the Linnaean moniker Bombyx mori before the chrysalis stage, then steaming or boiling the cocoons and pulling, or “reeling,” the filaments that emerged into strands of silk. Those strands were not only very long but triangular in cross-section, which gave silk thread its distinctive reflective quality; the combination of length and lustrousness made the stuff easy to weave, and even easier to sell.

The reason this is a matter of note in the history of industrialization, however, has less to do with the beauty of the fiber—a fiber is, technically, anything with a length at least one hundred times its diameter—than with its structure. Virtually all textiles, from linen to rayon, are made using the same step-by-step process. First, foreign materials, if any, must be removed, or carded, from the raw fiber; then individual strands must be separated, with those of uniform length combed, or aligned in parallel. The carded and combed fiber is then twisted into yarn, or spun, and ultimately woven by interlacing yarns at right angles.

Or so the sequence goes with staples, such as wool, linen, or cotton, which must be drawn at an angle so that the relatively short fiber twists into a longer and stronger yarn. But reeled silk is a filament: a very long filament. A single cocoon of B. mori2 holds only a few grams of silk’s two constituent proteins, fibroin and sericin, but they form threads, one-twentieth the diameter of a human hair, that can reach the length of ten football fields. The result is that silk produces yarn without either combing, or carding, or drawing; all it needs to be is tightly twisted and it’s ready to serve as the warp on a silk loom.

Silk from Chinese looms3 started appearing in Egypt as early as 1000 BCE, but it didn’t really take off as an article of trade until 50 CE, when the Han emperor made a “gift” of ten thousand rolls of the stuff to pacify the western nomads known as the Xiongnu—silk that would eventually be shipped westward across the Central Asian desert along the not yet named Silk Road to Persia and the Mediterranean empire of Rome.

China remained a major supplier of silk to Europe for centuries, but with the breakup of the Mongol empire in the fourteenth century and the rise of the Ottomans, silk production shifted west. The Turkish city of Bursa4 was shipping more than 100 metric tons annually by the beginning of the sixteenth century, most of it carried by Armenian merchants to either Italy or southern France. When the cities of Toulon and Marseille imposed a series of confiscatory tolls on west Asian silk in the 1650s, the free port of Livorno was happy to step into the breach and almost immediately became the entrepôt of choice for silk. In 1665, five Dutch ships5 left the Turkish port of Smyrna (now Izmir) for Livorno carrying five hundred bales of silk; in 1668, they carried twenty-five hundred.

The dramatic increase was driven by technology. The unique characteristics of silk fibers made them uniquely easy to weave by machine, and the demand for such machines was greatest in the triangle formed by the “silk cities” of Pisa, Lucca, and Livorno. At the very beginning of the seventeenth century, an engineer from Padua named Vittorio Zonca had designed the first machine to turn silk fiber into silk cloth. It was Zonca’s machine,6 which consisted of two frames, one inside the other, with the outer one holding spindles and reels and the inner one rotating around a central vertical post that held the silk by friction—a machine that had been kept a secret in the Piedmont district for more than a century—that drew John Lombe to Livorno. Or, more exactly, the plans for the machine, which he had traveled from Derbyshire to acquire.

It’s not known how he got them; bribery is a good guess. But when Lombe left Livorno in 1716, he had a set of plans for Zonca’s mill,* and two years later, something even better. In 1718, having figuratively filed the serial numbers off his smuggled plans, he received patent number 422 for his invention of “three sorts of engines never before made7 or used in Great Britaine [sic], one to winde the finest raw silk, another to spin, and the other to twist the finest Italian raw silk into organzine in great perfection, which was never before done in this country.” That’s about as specific as the application got, and it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the vagueness was deliberate, along with the decision to include a lot of Italian, apparently so that the process would remain exclusively Lombe’s even after the patent expired.

In 1719, John Lombe joined with his brother, Thomas, a mercer (that is, a dealer in fine, usually imported cloth) and a member of the London guild known as the Mercer’s Company,* to build their own mill. The site they chose was in Derbyshire, on the same island in the River Derwent used by Cotchett, and for the same reason: the water flowing past could easily be used to power their new silk mill. The “Italian Works,” as the Lombe mill was locally known, was a five-story structure, 100 feet long by 37 feet wide, set on pillars over an undershot waterwheel that drove a single vertical shaft operating machines on each of the five floors. The mill, which employed more than two hundred men,8 was able to produce so much silk that Thomas Lombe’s investment, reported at £30,000, had increased by 1732 to more than £80,000.

Lombe neglected to point out this seemingly pertinent fact when he petitioned Parliament for an extension of his 1718 patent, arguing that “he has not hitherto received the intended benefit9 of the aforesaid patent, and in consideration of the extraordinary nature of [the] undertaking.” Moreover, he was then locked in litigation with a group of potential competitors eager to get into the silk business, who introduced a suit, The case of the manufacturers of woolen,10 linnen, mohair, and cotton yarn … with respect to a bill for preserving and encouraging a new invention in England by Sir Thomas Lombe. He must have been a persuasive advocate on his own behalf, because even though the Crown declined to reward him with a patent extension, it did dismiss the suit, and paid him £14,000 in the bargain. Lombe would go on to become an alderman and a sheriff of a ward of the City of London; in 1739 he died, leaving an estate of £120,000, a poor moral lesson about the hazards of theft.

Lombe’s career is even more telling, a reminder that mechanization was a necessary but not sufficient component of national industrialization. No matter how efficient the Zonca/Lombe machine, it was still spinning yarn for a fabric whose appeal was restricted to the elite of English society. This simple fact placed the same ceiling on expansion that had limited the potential of every other innovation since Heron started making toys for Alexandria’s nobles. Only one silk spinning factory11—the Lombe mill at Derby—was established in England before 1750, and obviously waterpower was sufficient for all its needs. The true industrialization of Britain, and subsequently, the world, depended on a commodity that could attract consumers not by the thousands but by the millions. Something that could be produced in such quantity that hundreds of factories would need steam power not only to manufacture but (remember Rocket) to transport it.

Something like, for example, cotton.

TODAY, THE SEED FIBER of plants belonging to the genus Gossypium is the world’s most important nonfood agricultural product, with something in the neighborhood of 115 million bales, or twenty-eight million tons, produced annually. All of that production comes from the plant’s boll, or seed pod, which appears after the plant blossoms and, as it matures, grows “hair” in the form of fibers from two to three inches in length. Since not all bolls mature at the same time, for most of the crop’s history, handpicking has proved to deliver the highest yields; this has resulted in a number of well-known consequences, including the durability of the institution of slavery, from Egypt in 3000 BCE to the American South until 1865 or so. Abusive labor practices and cotton appear together pretty much everywhere, in fact, that the climate is temperate, with a lot of moisture during the growing season and a hot and dry harvesting season. Which describes the banks of not only the Nile and the Mississippi, but the Hooghly: the river that runs past Calcutta, home to the world’s first great multinational corporation.

The international venture that would ultimately be known as the Honourable East India Company was created by a royal charter—a letter patent—issued by Elizabeth I on December 31, 1600, providing a fifteen-year monopoly on trade with the so-called Spice Islands. Soon enough, the charter, and the ambitions of the Company, were to embrace south Asia and the Indian subcontinent; its scale was enough to make twenty-first-century multinationals hide their heads in shame. From about 1608 until 1757, the Company merely dominated India’s economy; from 1757 until 1858, it ruled nearly half the subcontinent as sovereign, with its own tax collectors, police force, and army.

India had many attractions for the Company, but by far the largest was that India could produce more cotton more cheaply than anywhere else on the planet. Even before the Company chose the village of Calcutta12 on India’s east coast as its trading post in 1690, they were in the cotton business; shipments of Indian “calico”—named not for Calcutta, but for the Malabar Coast entrepôt known as Calicut—rose twentyfold between 1620 and 1625 and another fivefold between 1625 and 1690.

Production increased to meet demand, and demand for Indian cotton rose because it was not only cheaper than cotton from elsewhere, but better—the result not of superior technology but of a gigantic labor pool with centuries of expertise. English cotton thread was not only pricier than Indian, but too weak to be used on its own; because weaving used the vertical threads of the warp to hold the lateral threads of the weft in a lattice, the warp fibers needed to be both longer and stronger. This obliged English weavers to use local cotton only in combination with much stronger linen, to make the cloth known as fustian. Even then, it made for a very rough weave13 indeed, not nearly smooth enough to accept the printed designs demanded by Britain’s aristocrats, or the increasingly prosperous British middle class.

As Indian cotton began to crowd out not only domestic cotton but all domestic cloth, British textile manufacturers predictably sought protection from imports. They did not count any large number of cotton weavers, given the small part that the fiber was then playing in the English economy; but they did include politically powerful weavers of wool, and especially of silk. In particular, the hand silk weavers of Spitalfields, a hamlet in the East End of London, pressured Parliament to pass the first of what would be known as the Calico Acts.

The Calico Acts (the first was passed in 1700, the second, more restrictive one twenty years later) prohibited both the import and ownership of Indian printed cottons. It was a decisive victory for the large but dispersed English textile industry against the single largest joint stock corporation in the kingdom. But if the Acts were originally drafted to favor manufacturing at the expense of trade, they failed miserably. In one of history’s most significant validations of the law of unintended consequences, the Acts, which originated as protection for Britain’s woolen, silk, and linen manufacturers, sheltered the nascent cotton industry even better. The results were, to understate the case, startling, beginning with the creation of the most valuable export industry in human history. Between 1700 and 1750,14 British export trade in textiles doubled; by 1800 it had trebled, and, with two-thirds of the total generated by cotton goods, British manufactured exports amounted to 40 percent of national income—the largest percentage ever enjoyed by any nation before or since.

The explosive growth in the output of Britain’s textile manufacturers was fueled by the equally explosive growth in the number of potential consumers for their products. The market for cotton,15 in fact, was so avid that only extraordinary increases in productivity could satisfy it. Since the domestic market could expand only as fast as the population itself, really fast growth needed to harness colonial policy to the export-friendly protectionist philosophy that would come to be called mercantilism. Thus the policy of conquering large territories was justified not because of a colony’s mineral wealth, but because of its consumers.

Those overseas consumers were needed16 badly, because while the domestic market was growing (the British economy trebled in the century following the passage of the first Calico Act, mostly because of population growth, but partly because per capita GDP grew by a third, twice as fast as anywhere else in Europe), it wasn’t growing nearly fast enough.

Not all of the increase was even measurable. Hundreds of studies of probate show dramatic increases in the inventories of furniture, clothing, household tools, and so on that Britons were bequeathing to their heirs, which strongly suggests that the stock of material goods was exploding. Even those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British households that were seeing no increase in their cash income were nonetheless able to reallocate that income to purchase more market-supplied goods in preference to homemade. They were the ones who were able to attract the attention17 of a generation of inventors eager to replace their homespun with something better, or at least prettier.

And they didn’t just substitute market-bought commodities for homemade; they also replaced them with products never before imagined. Throughout Britain, members of the middle and even working classes even looked different, once they were widely able to replace dyed wool with cotton prints.

In order to make cotton fabric from domestic yarn smooth enough to accept prints, however, Britain’s textile manufacturers needed to master the other half of the clothmaking equation. The industry’s next world-changing invention was intended not to spin fiber into yarn, but weave yarn into cloth.

With the exception of flaking stone into useful shapes (a skill that seems unlikely to return to the vocational curriculum), weaving is humanity’s oldest craft. People in Mesopotamia and Turkey wove both baskets and cloth around 8000 BCE, and the first technique, simple over-and-under latticework, remained pretty much the only technique for at least four millennia. By 2000 BCE,18 however, far more complex weaving was being practiced, as is evidenced by models of looms found in Egyptian tombs. These frame looms had replaced the temporary “looms” made by either hanging fibers from tree branches or stretching them across a hole in the ground, making it possible to use heddles (the cables or wires used to separate the threads that form the warp of a piece of woven cloth) and permitting a shuttle to carry the weft laterally. A fabric’s texture and design are created by simultaneously lifting the heddles to create a space, or shed, and interlacing the warp with different weights and colors of weft. The more heddles in a loom, the more combinations possible.

For millennia, the hands controlling those heddles and shuttles were overwhelmingly female, as, indeed, were the artisans spinning the weaver’s yarn. When the fourth-century church father Saint Jerome recommended the craft for his female parishioners as an inoculation against the idleness sure to lead Eve’s daughters into temptation, he was giving a Christian spin to the same occupation that Penelope used to keep her suitors at bay a thousand years before. By the sixteenth century, however, weaving had become the prototypical cottage industry: diffuse, traditional, and decidedly low-tech. It would remain so for two centuries. As with metalworking, toolmaking, and a dozen other crafts that had experienced a thousand years’ worth of occasional innovation, the textile industry was able to enter into a cycle of sustainable invention only in the early eighteenth century.

THE CYCLE BEGAN WHEN John Kay, the fourteen-year-old son of a Lancashire farmer, was apprenticed to a maker of reeds (the devices used to separate the threads of a warp, usually made of cane, or reed). In legend at least, Kay left after a single month, convinced he had learned everything he would ever need to know. It seems likely that he didn’t know everything, since it was eight years later, in 1726, that his first invention appeared, an improved reed that used wire instead of cane. He never patented19 what soon became known as “Kay’s Reeds,” but it was certainly not out of any antagonism to the principle of patenting. In 1730, he acquired a patent for a method of preparing the twine used for looms, and three years after that, one for a machine for dressing wool. More significantly, in the same year, Kay patented a new shuttle that was initially known as a wheel shuttle, then a spring shuttle; no one called it a flying shuttle until 1780.

Before Kay’s invention, looms had been operated by weavers passing the shuttle, which carried the weft, through the warp threads by hand. As a result, any loomed cloth was going to be about the width of a human wingspan. By putting the shuttle on wheels and attaching cords to either end, Kay’s invention permitted it to “fly” by pulling the cord in either direction. It would take another fifty years for its use to become widespread, but despite its relatively leisurely adoption, the flying shuttle made Kay, if not wealthy, then at least prosperous; in 1738, he described his profession as that of “inventor,” but by 1745, had promoted himself to the status of “gentleman.” In 1747, he moved to France, where policies toward invention and inventing were as capricious as they had been in England under the Tudors: Inventors in good odor at the Bourbon court20could be rewarded with pensions, loans, production subsidies, exclusive franchises, and even titles. Kay was able to receive a French “patent” on his shuttle just as his English patent was expiring, and in 1749 a pension.

Kay may have seen himself as a gentleman, but he never stopped inventing. In 1738, he patented a windmill that successfully competed with Newcomen’s atmospheric engine in raising water from mines; in 1745, a loom whose spindles were coordinated by treadles, thus permitting the weaver to keep hands free; and in 1754, a new machine for making the cards used to store weaving designs. He spent so much time, in fact, traveling from France to Britain and back again in order to defend his patents that the French government revoked his pension in 1760 (though they restored it in 1770).

Without minimizing the importance of his inventions, Kay’s posthumous reputation, as changeable as a couturier’s hemlines, may have even more to say about the special character of the Industrial Revolution in England. Though his death in France occurred in such vague circumstances that even the year cannot be established precisely, a hundred years later, by the 1880s, the critical importance of textile mechanization in the making of what was newly called the Industrial Revolution was so obvious that he, and other clothmaking pioneers, were being lionized in both English and French biographies. When the times, and the culture, demanded a hero, Kay, a Central Casting dream for the part of the brilliant inventor denied credit, was made to fit the bill, and his reputation has risen and fallen regularly ever since.

That is not, however, the case with the flying shuttle itself, which indisputably revolutionized the craft of weaving. It didn’t do so by making the skills of the artisan redundant. Quite the opposite, in fact. Kay’s flying shuttle made it possible for weavers to produce a wider product, which they called “broadloom,” but doing so was demanding. Weaving requires that the weft threads be under constant tension in order to make certain that each one is precisely the same length as its predecessor; slack is the enemy of a properly woven cloth. Using a flying shuttle to carry weft threads through the warp made it possible to weave a far wider bolt of cloth, but the required momentum introduced the possibility of a rebound, and thereby a slack thread. Kay’s invention still needed a skilled artisan to catch the shuttle and so avoid even the slightest bit of bounce when it was thrown across the loom.

The significance of this fact for industrialization21 was twofold, and instructive. The initial impact of Kay’s invention was an increase in the productivity of Britain’s weavers—enough of an increase that they were able to weave all the yarn that they could get in less time than ever before. And they could do it by hand. Though power looms had existed, at least in concept, for centuries (under his sketch for one, Leonardo himself wrote, “This is second only to the printing press22 in importance; no less useful in its practical application; a lucrative, beautiful, and subtle invention”), there was little interest in them so long as virtually all the available yarn could be turned into cloth in cottages. This fact reinforced the weaver’s independence; but it also encouraged another group of innovative types who were getting ready to put spinning itself on an industrial footing.

The first tools for spinning are not quite as old as the first looms. For millennia, the device used to make yarn consisted essentially of two simple sticks; one, the distaff, held the unspun fiber, while the other, the spindle, imparted twist as a pitchfork-shaped flyer wound the fiber around its “tines” and into yarn, with all the twisting and rotating done at different, though proportionally related speeds. The first wheels used to mechanize23 the process by turning the spindle at a consistent rate were probably invented in India during the fifth or sixth century CE, and made their way to Europe around the end of the first millennium, though the earliest documented European spinning wheel can be dated only to 1298.

The significance of the spinning wheel is as large in the history of mechanical invention as it is in the history of textiles; it was not merely the first machine to transmit power via a belt, but after 1524, when Leonardo (surprise!) put wheel, crank, connecting rod, and treadle together, it was the first to do so with various parts of the machine revolving at different speeds. The bigger the wheel, the larger the demand for power; the wheels of the fourteenth century were spun by hand, by the sixteenth, by a foot treadle. Inevitably, more demand for yarn meant more demand for power, either animal, wind, water, or, eventually, steam.

The first step in that direction was taken in 1738 by Lewis Paul, a onetime carpenter who patented a machine that cleaned and carded fiber and “put [it] between a pair of rollers,24 cylinders, or cones, or some such movements, which being twined around by their motion, draws in the new mass of wool or cotton to be spun, in proportion to the velocity given to such rollers, cylinders, or cones; as the prepared mass presses regularly through or betwixt these rollers, cylinders, or cones, others, moving proportionally faster than the first, draw the rope, thread, or sliver to any degree of fineness”—a design that he improved with a new patent in 1758.

The following decade, an even larger step was taken. At almost exactly the same time that Matthew Boulton was creating the Soho Manufactory, Henry Cort was building his puddling furnace, Joseph Black was investigating the properties of latent heat, and James Watt was repairing Glasgow University’s broken model of a Newcomen engine, a Lancashire weaver had his own Gestalt moment.*

The year of James Hargreaves’s inspiration is a little vague—his daughter dated it to 1766—but not its character. While visiting a friend, Hargreaves observed a spinning wheel that had been knocked down; with the wheel and spindle in a vertical position, rather than their then-traditional horizontal one, they continued to revolve. In a flash, Hargreaves imagined25 a line of spindles, upright and side by side, spinning multiple threads simultaneously.

Nearly fifty years later, the first description of the spinning jenny (“jenny” is a dialect term for “engine” in Lancashire) appeared in the September 1807 issue of The Athenaeum, in which readers learned that the first one was made “almost wholly with a pocket knife.26 It contained eight spindles, and the clasp by which the thread was drawn out was the stalk of a briar split in two.” The result is not just a romantic tale; the jenny immediately delivered an eightfold increase of the amount of yarn that a single spinner could produce. Just as immediately, the machine had customers—and enemies. Hargreaves’s daughter recalled that fearful hand spinners “came to our house and burnt27 the frame work of twenty new machines.”

In June 1770, Hargreaves drafted an application for a patent (number 962) which read, “much application and many trials28 [produced] a method of making a wheel or engine of an entire new construction that will spin, draw, and twist sixteen or more threads at one time by a turn or motion of the hand and the draw of the other.” Those “many trials,” and, more significantly, the delay between the first (and very public) sales of the jenny and receipt of legal protection for its design, made for some serious problems. Lancashire’s cotton manufacturers* had been using the jenny for at least two years before Hargreaves got around to patenting it, and, under threat of losing their new best friend, they offered Hargreaves £3,000 for a license, which he evidently refused, seriously overplaying his hand. The fact that he had sold the jenny before patenting it severely limited his patent rights, and he died eight years later, comfortable, but not rich.

Hargreaves’s experience was telling. Both ends of the clothmaking process—spinning and weaving—were dominated by artisans who defined their own interests in terms rather more complicated than a simple desire for wealth. Prior to the introduction of the jenny, Britain’s spinning was performed largely by what we would call independent contractors: the original cottage industrialists, taking raw materials from manufacturers who “put out” for contract the production of finished fabric.

This was efficient—no huge capital expenses for the manufacturer, for example—but it contained within its organization what one might call a moral hazard. Since independent spinners worked for more than one manufacturer, they frequently juggled their contracts, delaying manufacturer number one in order to meet an order for number two. At its worst, this meant taking one manufacturer’s raw material and using it to produce goods for another, hiding the choice by making a flimsier yarn for both.

The other half of the textile “industry” was no different. Like the lilies of the field, Britain’s weavers did not spin, nor did they toil, at least not more than necessary. They were proud artisans who not only wanted to control their work, but also were famously unwilling to work too hard at it. In the words of historian David Landes, “Weavers typically rested and played long,29 well into the week, then worked hard toward the end in order to make delivery and collect pay on Saturday…. Saturday night was for drinking, Sunday brought more beer and ale.” And it didn’t end there; one of their more rambunctious traditions was the custom known as “Saint” Monday, an ode to which appeared sometime in the 1780s:

When in due course, SAINT MONDAY30 wakes the day,

Off to a Purl-house straight they haste away; 

Or, at a Gin-shop, ruin’s beaten road

Offer libations to a tippling God….

The attitude of the day suited spinners and weavers a lot better than it did the manufacturers who employed them. The obvious solution to their problems was to observe the artisans as they worked, which meant getting them out of their cottages and into factories. One of the more obdurate rules of economics, however, is that, given their capital demands, factories are preferable to more flexibly “outsourced” labor only if they are more productive.

The place where they became so was the same one where the Lombes built England’s first textile factory: on the banks of the River Derwent.

A TOUR GROUP DECIDING to engage a boat for a day trip along the Derwent might be forgiven for thinking that they had seen England change from a feudal to an industrial economy between morning and evening. Chatsworth Park, on the banks of the Derwent in Derbyshire’s Peak District, is one of the greatest estates in Britain; from the sixteenth century on, Chatsworth House was only one of the many homes of the Dukes of Devonshire, built at the center of the sine qua non of medieval wealth: thousands of acres of productive agricultural land cultivated by tenant farmers. Downstream from Chatsworth Park’s legendary gardens, the Derwent flows under a bridge even older than the dukedom, past the village of Darley Dale whose place in history marks another sort of wealth: Darley Dale was the home of Henry Maudslay’s assistant, Joseph Whitworth, who established the standard for English screw threads. From there, the river takes a series of U-shaped oxbow turns through a deep set of limestone cliffs and picks up some tributary streams, emerging into a valley with heavy vegetation on both banks, broken, about five miles south of Darley Dale, by a onetime factory now housing a museum and a shopping mall, a sprawling red brick behemoth known as Masson Mills.

Masson Mills, and the Derwent Valley in which it was built, are, like the Iron Gorge foundries, recognized by the United Nations as an official World Heritage site. The reasons given by UNESCO read as follows: “The Derwent Valley saw the birth of the factory system, when new types of building were erected to house the new technology for spinning cotton…. In the Derwent Valley for the first time there was large-scale industrial production in a hitherto rural landscape. The need to provide housing and other facilities for workers and managers resulted in the creation of the first modern industrial towns.” The system, the buildings, the transformation of the landscape, and even the towns arose on the banks of the Derwent almost entirely because of the efforts of one man: the brilliant, and exceedingly controversial, Richard Arkwright.

ARKWRIGHT WAS BORN IN Lancashire in 1732, to a family at the less prosperous end of the artisan scale—saddlers, tailors, shoemakers, and the like—who apprenticed him at age twelve to a slightly atypical trade. For six years, Arkwright studied the craft of barbering, though it didn’t take him long to realize that he could make considerably more money making hair than removing it. For nearly fifteen years, he was a maker of wigs, recalling, “I was a barber,31 but I have left it off, and I and another are going up and down the country buying hair and can make more of it.”

No doubt he found the trade in hair pleasant enough, at least until 1767, when he met, in a pub, an itinerant clockmaker with the confusing (to historians, anyway) name of John Kay. This John Kay had nothing to do with flying shuttles, but he did have an interest in the other side of clothmaking, and he boasted to his new drinking companion, just as he collapsed over his last drink, that he could build a machine that would spin cotton on rollers. As both men later recalled,32 Kay woke up to find the onetime wig maker looming over him demanding a small model as proof of the clockmaker’s boasts.

As would be subsequently revealed, Kay had invented the new spinning machine in much the same way that John Lombe had invented the silk mill. Given the rather fluid attitudes of the day concerning intellectual property, it’s probably too much to say that he stole the design, but he certainly borrowed it, from a Lancashire reed maker and weaver named Thomas Highs, who may even have a claim on the invention of the spinning jenny (Highs’s daughter, Jane,33 always maintained that it was named for her). Whatever his contribution to the jenny, he was clearly responsible for the design of the machine that Kay reproduced—from memory—for Arkwright, since two years before, Highs had hired the clockmaker to turn his wooden model into a working machine made of iron.

Fig. 6: This is the diagram that accompanied Arkwright’s patent application, which became the 931st patent awarded by Britain, in July 1769. The rollers, on the right, teased out the fibers at different speeds, and were then given a helical twist by the wheel, on the left. The original power source was a horse mill driving a vertical shaft attached to a pulley; a belt, in turn, transferred the motion from the pulley to the spindles. Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

The Highs design did have one unique and important feature. While Paul’s spinning machine had only one set of rollers, Highs’s had two, with the second rotating five times as fast as the first. The second rollers therefore stretched the original thread fivefold before the jennylike bobbin-and-flyer gave it the needed twist, producing thread that was both longer and stronger than could be produced by either hand or jenny.

This was huge. English cotton was finally strong enough and long enough to be used not merely for weft but as warp thread, replacing both the more expensive linen and the Indian cotton that had been banned by the Calico Acts. Highs had invented the machine that would, more than any other, create Britain’s cotton industry.

He did not, however, patent his creation, perhaps because he did not yet see the profit to be made from it. Richard Arkwright, however, did. In 1768, after keeping Kay sequestered in Nottingham for a full year, he applied for a patent, which was awarded in 1769, the same year that James Watt patented his separate condenser. Two years later, Arkwright and his two partners, Samuel Need and Jedediah Strutt, started building, at Cromford in the Derwent Valley, the first factory to use the new spinning machine, which he named the water frame—“water” because Arkwright’s cotton was to be spun by harnessing the current of the River Derwent.

It is scarcely surprising that Arkwright’s cotton mill was dependent on waterpower. Though Newcomen engines were by then familiar sights at mine shafts all over England, Britain’s waterwheels produced at least ten times as much power as steam did, and the source of rotary motion for the rollers in Arkwright’s water frames was a wheel set below a millrace off the Derwent River, harnessing not only water flow but gravity to deliver a nominal ten horsepower. It opened in 1771 and a year later was already a huge success, based on the enormous labor savings of the mill (as Arkwright himself wrote, “wee [sic] shall not want34 ⅕ of the Hands I First Expect.d”); the high quality of the cotton, which approached silk in its smoothness; and, as was predictably the case, Jedediah Strutt’s successful lobbying of Parliament to reduce the taxes on British-made cotton.

Success can cement the relations between partners; such was the story of Matthew Boulton and James Watt. It can also corrode them. In 1775, the partnership of Arkwright, Strutt, and Need was showing some signs of rot. That was the year that Arkwright applied for, and received, an entirely new series of patents for machines that could, sequentially, card and comb raw cotton, draw it into thread, and twist it into yarn, intended to centralize every aspect of the manufacturing process. Significantly, the 1775 patents were in Arkwright’s name only, unlike the original 1769 water frame patent, which included the two partners (though not Kay, who had been formally apprenticed to Arkwright and subsequently left after much conflict with his master). The partnership did not survive, though both Strutt and Need were well compensated for their few years’ investment when Arkwright bought out their shares in the Cromford mill.

In 1774, another Lancashire inventor, Samuel Crompton, had produced the first machine to integrate a spindle carriage with a weaving frame, and could thus take raw material in one end and produce cloth at the other. But Crompton, either out of perversity or lack of ambition, never patented his invention, apparently being more interested in the writings of the Swedish scientist, inventor, and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. As a result, though Richard Arkwright paid a small fee to see the machine demonstrated in 1780, he had no obligation to pay subsequent royalties to its inventor, and almost immediately he incorporated Crompton’s invention—the first “mule,” so called because of its mixed parentage—into his factories, of which the most spectacular was Masson Mills.

If the Derwent River mills weren’t already, Crompton’s mule made them the most productive, if not the most enlightened, in the world, running two twelve-hour shifts daily. The machines still required adult strength and skill to operate, but numerous tasks, including gleaning the unused cotton, gave employment (if that is the right word) to hundreds of children as young as six. When the brilliant engineer and indefatigable improver John Smeaton demonstrated that breastshot waterwheels, which caught the flow of water as it fell from a millrace, were more efficient than the undershot wheels that were turned only by a river’s current, Arkwright changed his power source within months.

He was, partly because of his success with waterpower,35 suspicious of steam, about which he displayed an atypical indecisiveness, inquiring about a Boulton & Watt engine as early as 1777 but waiting until 1790 to order one. While he preferred waterpower, he was scarcely dogmatic about it; his Nottingham factory continued to use horse-powered wheels long after he shifted to water, partly as an experiment in calculating his power needs; he could scarcely add to or subtract36 from a river’s flow in the same way that he could add or subtract horses on their wheel. Horse power, in addition (and again unlike waterpower), was scalable: As a factory grew, it was easier to augment horse power than waterpower.

By the 1780s, however, Arkwright finally caught an enthusiasm for returning engines, the kind that use steam pumps to transport water to a higher elevation, which allowed gravity flow to operate a waterwheel. In 1781, Smeaton evaluated the potential of mills worked by steam directly versus those mediated by water and wrote that “no motion can ever act perfectly steady37 and equal in producing a circular motion, like the regular efflux of water turning in a waterwheel.” Arkwright took him at his word. He built the Shudehill mill, in Manchester, which used two Newcomen-type steam engines, consuming five tons of coal daily, to pump water to a reservoir from which it could drive a waterwheel thirty feet in diameter and eight feet wide, recycling the water all day long; the “earliest steam-powered cotton spinning mill38 was driven by the earliest successful type of steam engine.”

By the time he built Shudehill, Richard Arkwright employed at least five thousand people and his estimated net worth was somewhere north of £200,000.39 That was also the year in which he decided to take his winning streak to court, filing suit to protect his rights in the underlying 1769 patent, which was due to expire in 1783, along with his royalties on the fundamental machine used in cotton spinning. Arkwright had consistently set those royalties very high, partly to protect his own manufacturing businesses, and as a result had no shortage of infringers; in 1781, Arkwright sued nine of them, and the court found for him eight times. Unsatisfied, he kept up the pressure for another four years, even after the expiration of his first and most important patent.

In February 1785, Arkwright filed suit against his Derbyshire neighbor “Mad Peter” Nightingale* to finally recover the carding portion of his 1775 patent, and although he secured a finding of infringement, Arkwright had finally overreached. In May 1785, the Crown, under pressure from Arkwright’s competitors, filed a writ of scire facias, using an archaic legal doctrine that required a sheriff to notify a party that his right was questioned and had to be defended. By placing the burden of proof on Arkwright rather than his accusers, his competitors in the cotton industry, who had invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in machinery that they understandably wanted to be able to use without permission from Arkwright, had stumbled on a powerful weapon.

The trial of Rex v. Arkwright, which was heard at Westminster Hall in June 1785, was the result. The original dubiousness of Arkwright’s “invention” now came back to haunt him, as Highs and Kay, and even James Hargreaves’s widow, all appeared as witnesses against him, with Kay going on record as saying “he never would have had the rollers but through me.” Arkwright, during his own testimony, said, “if any man has found out a thing,40 and begun a thing, and does not go forwards … another man has the right to take it up, and get a patent for it.”

The final ruling, by Chief Justice Buller, found against Arkwright on three separate grounds: that the 1775 patent was not novel (that it essentially restated the 1769 patent, in an attempt to extend it); that it included elements not invented by Arkwright; and that it was insufficiently specific. On November 14, 1785, the Court of King’s Bench vacated four of Arkwright’s patents.

He was enraged, but hardly impoverished, by the ruling. The real impact, however, was the unique public forum it offered Britain on the subject of patent, invention, and the new world that they had created. Though the public attacks on Arkwright’s behavior were vicious (as were the courtroom tactics: King’s Counsel Edward Bearcroft pointed to Arkwright and declared, “There sits the thief!”41), the actual decision against him was based on the technical grounds that his original specification was too vague. Though the last piece of the decision was the least newsworthy—the broadsheet distributed immediately after the trial, which crowed that “the old Fox is at last caught42 by his own beard in his own trap,” made no mention of it—it was by far the most significant.

By failing to describe the invention adequately, Arkwright’s patent application had, in essence, broken the bargain that granted patents to inventors in return for their making public the useful knowledge inherent in them. This part of the ruling would draw the attention of a number of other inventors, including James Watt.

Watt had been drawn into the Arkwright litigation in January 1785, at the behest of Boulton, who received a letter from Erasmus Darwin that said in part, “If yourself or Mr. Watt think as I do43 on this affair, & that your own interest, pray give me a line that I may advise Mr. Arkwright to apply to you.” Watt replied, “Though I do not love Arkwright,44 I don’t like the precedent of setting aside patents through default of specification. I fear for our own. The specification is not perfect according to the rules lately laid down by the judges. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that we [Boulton & Watt] have hid our candle under a bushel. We have taught all men to erect our engines, and are likely to suffer for our pains…. I begin to have little faith in patents; for according to the enterprising genius of the present age, no man can have a profitable patent but it will be pecked at….”

Watt did more than simply offer testimony in the Nightingale trial. After the final decision in November 1785, Josiah Wedgwood, like Watt and Boulton a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and himself a successful industrialist, wrote to Watt, “I have visited Mr. Arkwright45several times and find him much more conversible than I expected…. I told him you were considering the subject of patents, and you two geniuses may probably strike out some new lights together which neither of you might think of separately.” Wedgwood proved prescient; together, Watt and Arkwright wrote a manuscript entitled “Heads of a Bill to explain and amend the laws relative to Letters Patent and grants of privileges for new Inventions,” essentially a reworking of Coke’s Statute of 1623 that had created England’s first patent law. In addition to its policy prescriptions, which were largely an unsuccessful argument against the requirement that patent applications be as specific as possible, the manuscript offered a remarkable insight into Watt’s perspective on the life of the inventor, who should, in Watt’s own (perhaps inadvertently revealing) words, “be considered an Infant, who cannot guard his own Rights”:

An engineer’s life without patent46 is not worthwhile … few men of ingenuity make fortunes … without suffering to think seriously whether the article he manufactures might, or might not, be Improved. The man of ingenuity in order to succeed … must seclude himself from Society, he must devote the whole powers of his mind to that one object, he must persevere in spite of the many fruitless experiments he makes, and he must apply money to the expenses of these experiments, which strict Prudence would dedicate to other purposes. By seclusion from the world he becomes ignorant of its manners, and unable to grapple with the more artful tradesman, who has applied the powers of his mind, not to the improvement of the commodity he deals in, but to the means of buying cheap and selling dear, or to the still less laudable purpose of oppressing such ingenious workmen as their ill fate may have thrown into his power.

At no earlier time or other place in human history could Watt’s argument—“patents create a great and profitable trade … to the immense emolument of the state,” which should therefore grant patents “not as the price of a secret,47 but as rewards to men of merit for their ingenuity”—have even been comprehensible.* Combining Locke’s seventeenth-century doctrine of natural rights in one’s intellectual labor with eighteenth-century utilitarianism, it was, literally, revolutionary.

Arkwright died a wealthy man in 1792; within a few decades, biographers would describe him as a fraud who had, in one biographer’s words, “possessed unwearied zeal49 and patience in obtaining the discoveries of others.” A few years later, others would defend him; one described him as “a man of Napoleonic nerve and ambition.” By the 1840s, the retrospectively apparent fact that Arkwright, and men like him, had made Britain a world-straddling power pretty much guaranteed a measure of florid, if backhanded, hero worship. The greatest hero-worshipper of them all, Thomas Carlyle, described Arkwright as

A plain, almost gross,50 bag-cheeked, potbellied, much enduring, much inventing man and barber…. French Revolutions were a-brewing: to resist the same in any measure, imperial Kaisers were impotent without the cotton and cloth of England, and it was this man that had to give England the power of cotton…. It is said ideas produce revolutions, and truly they do; not spiritual ideas only, but even mechanical. In this clanging clashing universal Sword-dance which the European world now dances for the last half-century, Voltaire is but one choragus [leader of a movement, from the old Greek word for the sponsor of a chorus] where Richard Arkwright is another.

This touches on, but misses, the importance of the part played by Arkwright in the birth of self-sustaining industrialization. Sooner or later, the cycle of innovation needed to provide goods not merely for Britain’s manufacturers and traders—what a modern analysis would call business-to-business commerce—but the nation’s consumers. The typical eighteenth-century British household could scarcely buy cannon, or wooden pulley blocks for sailing ships, or—except for home heating—even much coal. But they could, and did, buy clothes. Arkwright was not a great inventor, but he was a visionary, who saw, better than any man alive, how to convert useful knowledge into cotton apparel and ultimately into wealth: for himself, and for Britain.

IN ADDITION TO MAKING cloth and inspiring innovation, textile manufacturing produced conflict. More than the mining of coal, or the making of iron, or even the grinding of grain, it exposed the great social clash of the day: on the one hand, the power of sustained innovation, fueled by ever-increasing wealth; on the other, five centuries of traditional expertise controlled by militant and well-organized artisans. None of them were more militant, or better organized, than Britain’s spinners and weavers.

Spinning first. The art of spinning is largely a matter of coordinating several processes simultaneously so that the fiber is under constant tension. Since it is elastic, the amount of tension applied to it while it is wound can result in yarn that is inconsistent in quality from one end to the other. In the first spinning machines, the operator had to simultaneously shape the winding and turn the spindles at precisely the same rate, so as to wind up the yarn—the term of art is “winding the cop”—without either stretching the yarn or allowing it to go slack. The craft was difficult enough that spinners became not only indispensable to the process, but highly protective of their place in it, exhibiting all the rent-seeking mania of a medieval guild. Along the way they transformed themselves from independent contractors into the nation’s most powerful and highly organized craft union. At one union meeting, a spinner argued violently against allowing “piecers” (the subordinates on the spinning line, who tie together threads when they break) to actually put up a cop of cotton yarn unless he was “a son, brother, or orphan nephew.”51 In the industry’s Lancashire heartland,52 mule spinners developed work rules in 1780 that remained in force until the 1960s, and partly in consequence, the new and improved ring-spinning machines, invented by the American John Thorp in 1828, which operated continuously and twisted fibers into yarn by attaching them to a rotating ring, didn’t catch on in Britain53 until the end of the nineteenth century.

As with spinning, so with weaving. Edmund Cartwright, a onetime Church of England minister and “the last of the great inventors54 who belong to the craft period,” built the first power loom in 1785, inspired by the need to keep up with the great surpluses of yarn being produced by Arkwright’s factories.* As Cartwright later recalled,

as soon as Arkwright’s patent expired,55 so many mills would be erected and so much cotton spun that hands would never be found to weave it…. It struck me that as plain weaving can only be three movements which were to follow each other in succession, there would be little difficulty in producing them and repeating them. Full of these ideas I immediately employed a carpenter and smith to carry them into effect. As soon as the machine was finished, I got a weaver to put in a warp which was of such material as sail cloths are usually made of. To my great delight, a piece of cloth, such as it was, was the product.

Cartwright’s initial design, for which he received a patent in 1785, was ingenious, but not yet practical, because it failed to solve the feedback problem inherent in the nature of mechanizing the shuttle, which was, in the language of engineering, “negatively driven.” That is, it was driven first one way, then the other, which meant that it could not be allowed to rebound and so slacken the weave. The task of maintaining the constant tension needed to keep each thread of the warp the same length was hugely difficult to mechanize, which was why weaving remained a handcraft longer than any other step in textile manufacturing. Among other things, Cartwright needed some way to control variations in speed, since a too-slow shuttle wouldn’t travel the entire width of the loom, and a too-fast one would bounce back, with disastrous results.

It took two years, and three more patents, before the Reverend Cartwright’s loom was ready for commercial application, but in April 1787, the new and improved version, with its frame now horizontal rather than vertical, and with each warp thread attached to a separate bobbin, was complete.

Cartwright constructed twenty looms using his design and put them to work in a weaving “shed” in Doncaster. He further agreed to license the design to a cotton manufacturer named Robert Grimshaw, who started building five hundred Cartwright looms at a new mill in Manchester in the spring of 1792. By summertime, only a few dozen had been built and installed, but that was enough to provoke Manchester’s weavers, who accurately saw the threat they represented. Whether their anger flamed hot enough to burn down Grimshaw’s mill remains unknown, but something certainly did: In March 1792, after a series of anonymous threats, the mill was destroyed.

Cartwright’s power looms were not the first textile machines to be attacked, and they would not be the last.

SIR ISAAC NEWTON’S THIRD law of motion states that every action is paired with an equal and opposite reaction. The “equal and opposite” reaction to the industrialization of the textile industry—and, by extension, all industrialization—is widely, though vaguely, known as Luddism.

Resistance to the mechanization of the traditional crafts of spinning and weaving had been around for two centuries before anyone heard of Luddism, or Luddites. In 1551 Parliament passed legislation56 prohibiting mechanical gig mills, used to raise the nap on wool, and William Lee, inventor of an early knitting frame, was forced by the hosier’s guild to leave England in 1589. More often, hostility to machinery made itself known not in the form of writs and laws but crowbars and clubs. In 1675, weavers in Spitalfields attacked engines (not, of course, steam-powered) able to multiply the efforts of a single worker. Not only was Richard Hargreaves’s original spinning jenny destroyed57 in 1767, but so also was his new and improved version in 1769.

Nor was the phenomenon exclusively British. Machine breaking in France was at least as frequent, and probably even more consequential, though it can be hard to tease out whether the phenomenon contributed to, or was a symptom of, some of the uglier aspects of the French Revolution. Normandy in particular,58 which was not only close to England but the most “English” region of France, was the site of dozens of incidents in 1789 alone. In July, hundreds of spinning jennys were destroyed, along with a French version of Arkwright’s water frame. In October, an attorney in Rouen applauded the destruction of “the machines used in cotton-spinning59 that have deprived many workers of their jobs.” In Troyes, spinners rioted, killing the mayor and mutilating his body because “he had favored machines.”60 The carders of Lille destroyed machines in 1790; in 1791, the spinning jennies of Roanne were hacked up and burned. By 1796, administrators in the Department of the Somme were complaining, it turns out presciently, that the “prejudice against machinery61 has led the commercial classes … to abandon their interest in the cotton industry.”

The Luddite version of machine breaking—what the historian E. J. Hobsbawm called “collective bargaining by riot”62—was the product of half a dozen different but related historical threads. One was surely the Napoleonic Wars, which had been under way more or less continuously for more than fifteen years by the time of the first Luddite activity. The war economy had affected the textile industry of the Midlands no less than the shipbuilders of Portsmouth, first with dramatic increases in demand for sailcloth and uniforms, and then—as Napoleon’s so-called “Continental System” restricted British trade with the Americas and Europe—with equally dramatic decreases in exports, which fell by nearly a third from 1810 to 1811.

Bad enough to be a manufacturer in such times; far worse to be a laborer. Handloom weavers had been earning63 nearly twenty shillings a week in the 1790s; twenty years later, mostly because of the large number of new entrants to the industry, they were now earning less than ten. Factory workers were paid better, but the conditions in which they worked could be much worse: lung-destroying cotton dust everywhere, and noise so loud that workers were obliged to invent a method of lip-reading (known in Lancashire as “mee-mawing”64).

Many were nonetheless driven to factory work by the dramatic increase in the amount of rural land removed from the commons—the so-called “enclosure” movement by which more than six million acres of fields, meadows, and forests representing more than half of all the land then in cultivation in England65 were hedged, fenced, and turned into private property between 1770 and 1830. Enclosure was bad enough; in combination with war-fueled inflation, it doubled the price of food: a loaf of bread that had cost ninepence in 1800, by 1810 carried a price of a shilling and fivepence. The effective increase, to a handloom weaver who had seen his income halved in the same decade, was even more onerous, from 4 percent of his weekly wage to more than 14 percent.

Resentment and hunger among Britain’s weavers made for an explosive mixture. The first shots of the “rebellion,” however, were fired, not by weavers of broadloom but by an even more militant subset of textile artisans: Nottingham’s stocking knitters.

The technique of knotting and looping a single length of yarn into a continuous fabric is a fairly new technique, at least as compared to weaving, but versions still date back several thousand years. Evidence of the earliest, the single-needle craft known retrospectively by the Norse term nalbinding, has been found in the third-century CE Syrian city of Dura-Europos, but the use of double needles to pull one knot through another didn’t replace the far more difficult technique until the early Middle Ages. Double-needle knitting is not only faster, but it can, by selective choice of dropped stitches, curve in three dimensions, and it is therefore a highly attractive method for producing garments that need to be form-fitting. For most of human history, this meant extremities: gloves for hands, and (especially) stockings for feet. The skill required to produce a knitted sock by hand was great enough, and the investment in training so expensive, that stockingers were even more opposed to mechanization than either spinners or weavers.

This did not, of course, eliminate the urge to invent. The stocking frame, the world’s first knitting machine, was designed and built in 1589 by William Lee of Nottingham, a onetime curate who twice attempted to secure patent protection, failing both times. The lack of a patent66 took royalties out of Lee’s pocket but did nothing to stall the widespread adoption of the machine, which increased speed from a hundred stitches per minute to a thousand. This demanded a response from the stocking makers; in 1657, during the Protectorate, the London Company of Framework Knitters persuaded Oliver Cromwell to grant them a charter, and thus effective control over the production of knitted fabric throughout England. Sixty years later, disputes between the guilds of London and Nottingham ended with the latter independent of its parent guild and home to lots of new stockingers.* In the late 1770s, they petitioned Parliament67 to formalize their exclusive ownership of their craft with a law entitled “the Art and Mystery of Framework Knitting,” and when it failed to pass, they rioted in Nottingham.

The stockingers’ fierce defense of their prerogatives thus had a long list of precedents on March 11, 1811, when the first shots of the Luddite “rebellion” were fired. By then, Nottingham alone probably had nine thousand stocking frames, Leicestershire and Derbyshire another eleven thousand—and fewer than half were in use. Their owner-operators had become victims of both competition from factory “cut-ups” (stockings sewn together from two or more knit pieces, which had the benefit of being easier and cheaper to make, though far less sturdy) and the vagaries of Regency fashion; the legendary dandy Beau Brummel, who famously claimed that a frugal man could, with discipline, dress himself for no more than £1,000 a year, preferred trousers to knee socks.

The stockingers began in the town of Arnold,68 where weaving frames were being used to make cut-ups and, even worse, were being operated by weavers who had not yet completed the seven-year apprenticeship that the law required. They moved next to Nottingham and the weaver-heavy villages surrounding it, attacking virtually every night for weeks, a few dozen men carrying torches and using prybars and hammers to turn wooden frames—and any doors, walls, or windows that surrounded them—into kindling. None of the perpetrators were arrested, much less convicted and punished.

The attacks continued throughout the spring69 of 1811, and after a brief summertime lull started up again in the fall, by which time nearly one thousand weaving frames had been destroyed (out of the 25,000 to 29,000 then in Nottingham, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire), resulting in damages of between £6,000 and £10,000. That November, a commander70 using the nom de sabotage of Ned Ludd (sometimes Lud)—the name was supposedly derived from an apprentice to a Leicester stockinger named Ned Ludham whose reaction to a reprimand was to hammer the nearest stocking frame to splinters—led a series of increasingly daring attacks throughout the Midlands. On November 13, a letter to the Home Office demanded action against the “2000 men, many of them armed,71 [who] were riotously traversing the County of Nottingham.”

By December 1811, rioters appeared in the cotton manufacturing capital of Manchester, where Luddites smashed both weaving and spinning machinery. Because Manchester was further down the path72 to industrialization, and therefore housed such machines in large factories as opposed to small shops, the destruction demanded larger, and better organized, mobs. Because the communities they targeted were likewise better protected—Manchester alone had more than three thousand men73 serving as constables or members of the city’s night watch—it also put more of them at risk of capture, and by 1812, dozens of Luddites were on trial. Most were acquitted, but all were required to take loyalty oaths, and those at risk of punishment were granted royal pardons, though only under condition that they renounce Luddism and reaffirm their loyalty to the Crown on pain of death.

By 1812, however, the riots had started to inspire other disaffected laborers. In January, the West Riding of Yorkshire74 was subject to regular attacks by groups of “croppers” (men who used fifty-pound hand shears to cut the nap from woolen cloth, thus making it smooth) in fear for their jobs by the introduction of yet other new inventions: the once-banned gig mill, which raised the nap of the wool so that it could be sheared; and the complete shearing frame, which made a slightly inferior article, but could be operated by relatively unskilled workers.

On January 1, the Framework Knitters issued a document that declared, among other things,

Whereas by the charter75 granted by our late sovereign Lord Charles II by the Grace of God King of Great Britain France and Ireland, the framework knitters are empowered to break and destroy all frames and engines that fabricate articles in a fraudulent and deceitful manner and to destroy all framework knitters’ goods whatsoever that are so made and whereas a number of deceitful unprincipled and intriguing persons did attain an Act to be passed in the 28th year of our present sovereign Lord George III whereby it was enacted that persons entering by force into any house shop or place to break or destroy frames should be adjudged guilty of felony and as we are fully convinced that such Act was obtained in the most fraudulent interested and electioneering manner and that the honourable the Parliament of Great Britain was deceived as to the motives and intentions of the persons who obtained such Act we therefore the framework knitters do hereby declare the aforesaid Act to be null and void….

Given under my hand this first day of January 1812. God protect the Trade. Ned Lud’s Office—Sherwood Forest

The choice of words is revealing. The knitters believed themselves to be not merely injured economically, but victims of fraud and deceit. This made them not only self-interested76 but self-righteous, and through the spring of 1812, attacks grew more and more violent, with total damage estimated at £100,000 and at least a dozen deaths, almost all of them Luddites shot by horsemen from the Scots Greys, an army troop quartered nearby. In self-defense, the Luddites began targeting armories in order to equip themselves with firearms and ammunition; more alarming to the national government, the mobs had adopted Jacobin vernacular and costume, including the red flag, the drapeau rouge, of the Revolution. The national government was ready to react, or, more precisely, overreact. In February 1812, frame breaking was made a capital offense, and twelve thousand soldiers—roughly the number of British troops the future Duke of Wellington had led into battle against the French in Portugal four years earlier—deployed to enforce it. During a single Luddite attack on a Lancashire steam loom on April 18, five were killed and eighteen wounded. Hundreds were transported to Australia, and even more imprisoned. On April 28, a group of Luddites led by the onetime cropper George Mellor attacked the Rawfolds Mill and killed William Horsfall, its owner. Newspapers were reporting not just a local insurrection but a national rebellion.

Much of it was exaggeration. In July 1812, another letter to the Home Office, this from Earl Fitzwilliam, Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding, described a somewhat less frantic scene:

I do not mean to say, that parties of Luddites77 have not been met travelling from place to place, and perhaps marshalled in some degree of order, but that there is no evidence whatever, that any one person has yet established the fact of their having been assembled and drilling in a military way—as far as negative evidence can go, I think, the contrary seems established.

The Luddite legend has survived for centuries in part because of the appeal of a romantic brotherhood, a secret society complete with blood oaths: “I,______, of my own free will and accord do hereby promise, and swear that I will never reveal any of the names of any one of this secret committee, under the penalty of being sent out of this world by the first brother that may meet me, I furthermore do swear, that I will pursue with unceasing vengeance any traitor or traitors …” and even secret signals and passwords:

You must raise your right hand78 over your right eye if there be another Luddite in company he will raise his left hand over his left eye—then you must raise the forefinger of your right hand to the right side of your mouth—the other will raise the little finger of his left hand to the left side of his mouth and will say What are you? The answer, Determined—he will say, What for? Your answer, Free Liberty—then he will converse with you and tell you anything he knows….

Though they would not have used the terms, the Luddites were on one side of a newly violent debate about the relationship between labor and property. Opposing them was the newfangled notion that ideas were property; the Luddites argued (with crowbars and torches) that their skillswere property. The right of men to enjoy the fruits of their labor gave them license to defend the free exercise of those skills in exactly the same way that they might defend their houses.

The Luddite rebellion failed for the most obvious reason: an enormous disparity in military power, power that the national government was, eventually, willing to bring to bear. The Luddite idea lost the historical battle—“Luddite” is not, in most of the contemporary world, used as anything but an insult—because its thesis, which might be abbreviated as “property equals labor plus skill,” was less attractive than the idea that property equals labor plus ideas. The victory of the latter was decided not by argument, but economics: it produced more wealth, not just for individuals, but for an entire nation. Over time, the patents of Lombe, Kay, Hargreaves, and Arkwright not only became public property but attracted competing and superior inventions. In 1813, there were 2,400 power looms79 in England; in 1820 there were 12,150, and by 1833 more than 85,000. With the introduction of the iron power loom by Henry Maudslay’s onetime assistant Richard Roberts in 1822, a weaver could produce seven pieces of cotton shirting in a week, each twenty-four yards long, while a hand weaver could make only two. Three years later, the same weaver would average twelve weekly, and six years after that, “a steam-loom weaver,80 from 15 to 20 years of age, assisted by a girl about 12 years of age, attending to four looms, [could] weave eighteen similar pieces in a week; some can weave twenty.” During the century and a half81 that followed the Calico Acts, the productivity of the cotton industry increased fourteenfold.

We feel real poignancy when we recall the bucolic life (even if we do so through the soft focus of nostalgia) of a country weaver happy in his work skills and content with his life. But those skills, like those of a medieval goldsmith or an ancient carpenter, could not, by their very nature, reproduce themselves outside the closed community of the initiates. One lesson of the Luddite rebellion specifically, and the Industrial Revolution generally, is that maintaining the prosperity of those closed communities—their pride in workmanship as well as their economic well-being—can only be paid for by those outside the communities: by society at large. A great artisan can make a family prosperous; a great inventor can enrich an entire nation.

* The name, which appears in even some modern maps, is not such a leap as it seems. The city was also known, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as Legorno, harking back to a pre-Roman people known as the Ligurians, either directly or because of proximity to the Ligurian Sea. The two names, despite the number of shared letters, have no etymological connection.

* In one sense, the plans were unnecessary, since the mill was described in Zonca’s posthumously published 1607 book Novo teatro di machine, a copy of which was owned by the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Unfortunately, while there is no reason to think that Lombe, or for that matter anyone else, was aware of it, the existence of the book makes at least some of the more romantic stories about the theft slightly less persuasive. As a case in point, Lombe’s first biographer, William Hutton, wrote that the Piedmontese silk weavers were so angry at the theft of their secrets that they sent a femme fatale (“an artful woman,” in Hutton’s words) to England to seduce and poison John Lombe.

* The Mercer’s Company, which dates back to at least 1348 and which was chosen by the Lord Mayor of London as the first guild in the city’s hierarchy in 1515, still exists, along with one hundred other so-called “livery” companies including traditional ones like goldsmiths and weavers and rather more modern ones like information technologists.

* Or possibly not. See Thomas Highs’s version, below.

* One of them was the future prime minister Robert Peel, whose father had been a partner of Hargreaves.

* This nickname for Nightingale, great-uncle of Florence, was apparently earned by his daredevil horseback riding.

* It’s not fully comprehensible even today, since it depends on a principle that remains problematic: the belief that a direct line can be drawn from a single invention to a single inventor. In the 1920s, the historians William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas first documented the notion of “multiples”—simultaneous discovery by different people, which occurred with the telephone (Bell and Elisha Gray), thermometer (six different inventors), steamboat (Fulton, Jouffroy, Stevens, etc.), and calculus (Newton and Leibniz). Robert K. Merton wrote an essay on scientific discovery in the 1960s suggesting that the more gifted the scientist, the more likely that his discoveries will be multiply discovered, thus inspiring the statistician Stephen Stigler to formulate Stigler’s Law: No scientific discovery is ever named48 after its original discoverer.

* He was also, apparently, convinced of the practicality of such a machine by the success of the “Mechanical Turk,” a supposed chess-playing robot that had mystified all of Europe and which had not yet been revealed as one of the era’s great hoaxes: a hollow figurine concealing a human operator. Inventors are sometimes beneficiaries of their own ignorance.

* And lots of new stockings. Knitting anything but wool or silk was a pretty daunting task until 1758, when Jedediah Strutt—Richard Arkwright’s partner—patented the Derby Rib, which alternated two stitches, one the reverse of the other, and so made the production of ribbed cotton stockings as practical as that of silk.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!