Great Inventors and Their Inventions - Frank Bachman

The Invention of Spinning Machines: The Jenny, the Water Frame, and the Mule

While men were working on inventions to provide power to drive machines, and to furnish easy means of transportation and travel, others were working on inventions to be used on the farm, in the factory and the home, in the production and manufacture of articles of food, clothing, and shelter. The first of these inventions of manufacture and production were the spinning machines.

The Distaff and Spindle

The oldest spinning machine is the distaff and spindle. The spindle, the chief part of all machine spinning, is a slender round piece of wood or iron about twelve inches long, tapering toward each end. On the upper end, there is a notch or slit in which to fasten the thread. The distaff is a round stick, three or four feet long. One end is used to hold the loose supply of wool or cotton. The other end of the stick is held under the left arm, and is often fastened in a girdle at the belt.

When spinning with the distaff and spindle, the spinner pulls out from the loose wool or cotton on the distaff, a small piece, and twists the end of it by hand. This finished end is fastened into the notch or slit of the spindle. The spinner sets the spindle whirling, by rolling it between her right hand and leg, or by a twisting motion of the hand. Then the spindle is left to whirl as it dangles at her side. With her left hand she holds the loose thread, and with her right hand she draws it out to the proper size, as it is twisted by the whirling spindle. When a thread two or three feet long is thus properly twisted, the thread is unfastened from the upper end of the spindle and wound on the lower end. This process is continued until all the material on the distaff is spun.

Spinning with the Distaff


Until about the time of the Revolutionary War, all the woolen, flax, and cotton yarn used in the world was spun thus. From such yarn were woven the clothes of peasant and prince alike. Even to-day, women may be seen in the Holy Land, spinning in this old-fashioned way.

The Spinning Wheel

The first improvement on this ancient method was the spinning wheel. This is a machine to whirl the spindle by turning a wheel. When the spinning wheel is employed, the cleaned wool or cotton is first carded, then twisted loosely, and finally spun into yarn. The carding is done with hand cards, big coarse nail brushes, about twelve inches long and five inches wide. The cotton is spread on one card and combed with another, until the fibers all lie in one direction. It is then taken off in fleecy rolls, about twelve inches long and three quarters of an inch thick. These short cardings are twisted on the spinning wheel, into a loose thread, or roving, about the size of a candlewick. The rovings are wound on reels or bobbins, and finally spun into the finished yarn.

Carding Wool by Hand


The spinning wheel was a big advance over the distaff. The spindle could be kept whirling more rapidly and easily. The hands were free to fasten the short cardings together and draw them into rovings, or free to draw out the roving and to hold it while being twisted into yarn. One spinner could now spin as much yarn as a half dozen had done before. The yarn was more even, and better twisted.

Spinning Wheel


Spinning wheels were to be found in most homes until about 1840, and many are to be seen there now, preserved as curiosities. The mother always spun enough cotton and wool to supply the family with "linsey-woolsey" for clothes, and with yarns for socks.

James Hargreaves and the Spinning Jenny

The spinning wheel, which made only one thread at a time, was displaced by the spinning jenny, on which twenty, fifty, a hundred, and even a thousand threads can be spun at once. The inventor was James Hargreaves, an Englishman.

Hargreaves sat pondering one day over a faster way to spin cotton. His wife was busy in another part of the small room. Her spinning wheel for some cause toppled over. The spindle, which was thrown from a horizontal to an upright position, continued to whirl. Hargreaves saw, by one of those flashes of thought which come to the genius, that, if a number of spindles were placed upright side by side, and a way found to draw out the rovings as they were twisted, a number of threads could be spun by one pair of hands at one time. The idea of the spinning jenny was thus born. The invention was named jenny after Hargreaves' wife.



One person can spin with a jenny as much yarn as twenty to a hundred can spin, using the old spinning wheel. The yarn, too, is of better quality. Besides, boys and girls between the ages of twelve and fourteen can operate it even better than grown persons. The invention of the jenny thus marks the beginning of child labor in cotton and woolen factories.

The first jenny was completed about 1767. Hargreaves tried to keep his invention a secret, and to use it only in his own home. But he was tempted to make a few jennies to sell, to buy necessities for his children. In time, the spinners learned that he had a wonderful spinning machine with which a twelve-year-old girl could do as much work as a dozen grown persons with the spinning wheel. People at that time were not used to machines. It was the age of handwork, and they had not yet learned that machines in the end make more work and better wages. They only saw that this invention would lessen the number of spinners needed, and would deprive them of work. So the spinners, who as a rule were women, along with their husbands and friends, rose up against the inventor. A mob broke into his house and broke all the jennies that could be found, and Hargreaves had to flee for his life.

To protect his invention, he took out a patent in 1770, but this did no good. The spinning jenny was so easy to make that the manufacturers, quick to see its merits, made their own, and refused to pay any royalty on them. Thus it came about that Hargreaves received nothing for an invention which for forty years was the principal machine used in spinning cotton yarn, and still remains, as improved, the chief machine employed in spinning wool. He did not, however, live and die in poverty, as the story is often told. From a yarn factory of which he was part owner, he made a good living for himself and his family.

Richard Arkwright and the Water Frame

Cloth is made of two kinds of thread, the warp running lengthwise, and the woof running crosswise. Warp is a stronger thread than woof. Neither the spinning wheel nor the jenny made a cotton thread strong enough for warp. The warp in all cotton cloth up to this time was for this reason linen, and only the woof cotton. Linen thread costs more than cotton thread, and this made cotton cloth more expensive than if both the warp and woof were cotton. If cotton cloth was to be cheaper, a way had to be found to spin a cotton thread strong enough for warp. The man who succeeded was Richard Arkwright, also an Englishman.



Richard Arkwright was the youngest of thirteen children in a poor family. If he ever went to school, it was only for a short time. To make up for his lack of early education, Arkwright, when more than fifty years old and when working from five o'clock in the morning until nine at night, took an hour each day to study English grammar, and another hour to improve his spelling and writing.

When a boy, he did all sorts of odd jobs, and finally became a barber. Even as a barber, he showed that he was a man of enterprise. The usual price for a shave was two pence. Arkwright made his price a penny. When the other barbers lowered their price to one penny, he advertised "a good shave for a half penny."

By the time he was thirty, Arkwright had enough of shaving. He took up buying and selling hair to be used in wigs, which were stylish at the time. He went about the country from cottage to cottage, and became an expert in getting young girls to part with their long, glossy locks. He also came into possession of a secret way of dyeing hair, which added to its value. As a dealer in hair, he gained a sort of reputation, for the wigmakers pronounced "Arkwright's hair the best in the country."

As a barber and as a dealer in hair, Arkwright had a good opportunity to talk with people about spinning, about the lack of yarn, and about the different spinning machines that were being invented. Whether he got the idea from one of his customers, or from other inventions, or whether he was wise enough to see the need himself, at all events, he made up his mind to invent a spinning machine. Like other inventors before and after him, he began to neglect his regular business. Instead of saving money, he spent more than he earned. So before the first successful model was completed, he had spent all his savings, and his family were in want.

Arkwright's machine, patented in 1769, spun cotton, flax, or wool. Pairs of rollers drew out the rovings, and flying spindles did the rest. The machine is called the water frame because it was first driven by water power, but a better name is the roll-drawing spinning machine.

Spinning Frame


His invention was even a greater one than Hargreaves'. The water frame spun such a strong thread that it could be used for warp. Cloth could now be made for the first time entirely of cotton, and it was not long before English calicoes made their appearance. The thread was also so strong that it could be used for knitting cotton socks. Hargreaves' spinning jenny was suited only to spin thread from rovings, while the rovings had to be twisted on the spinning wheel. But the water frame twisted the rovings as well as spun the finished yarn. The water frame thus did away with the spinning wheel in factories, but not with the spinning jenny. The spinning jenny continued to be used to make the softer threads for woof, while the water frame was employed to twist rovings and to spin the harder and stronger yarns.

Water Frame


Like Hargreaves, Arkwright received next to nothing for an invention which is busy to-day the world over, spinning the warp for the cloth used by millions of people.

But he did not stop with the water frame. He went on and on, making one invention after another, until he had a number of machines, best described by calling them a cotton-yarn factory. The uncleaned cotton was put into the first of these, and it came out of the last, the water frame, as snow-white, well-twisted thread.

Arkwright was not only a great inventor, but he proved to be a good business man. For a time, he made little from his inventions or from a cotton manufactory of which he was part owner. It was not long, however, before wealth began to flow his way. He finally became one of the most important cotton-mill owners in England, and for a number of years controlled the market price of cotton yarn. Shortly before his death he was made a knight.

Samuel Crompton and the Mule

The spinning jenny spun good woof. The water frame spun good warp. But neither of these inventions spun yarn fine enough to weave muslin. All the muslin of the day came from India. The Hindu spinners were so skillful that they could make the very finest yarn, even on the spinning wheel. The spinning machine which broke India's hold on the muslin trade was the mule, invented in 1779 by Samuel Crompton, another Englishman.

From early childhood Samuel helped his widowed mother, who supported her only son and her two daughters by keeping a cow or two, by having a good garden, and by spinning and weaving. Samuel's "little legs became accustomed to the loom almost as soon as they were long enough to touch the treadles." Yet he went to school regularly, and was given a good education. Going to school did not, however, relieve him from a certain amount of spinning and weaving each day. His mother was in her way loving and kind, but woe unto Samuel if his daily amount of spinning and weaving was not done.

Hand Loom


Whether or not the eight-spindle jenny used by Samuel was a poor one, much of his time was taken up in "mending the ever-breaking ends of his miserable yarn." To escape the reproach of his exacting mother, it kept him forever busy to do the allotted stint of spinning and weaving. Then, too, Samuel was an excellent workman. It may be that he longed to weave cloth as beautiful and delicate as the muslins of India. At any rate, by the time he was twenty-one years of age, he began to think how a better spinning machine than the jenny could be made.

Most inventors are inspired by the hope that from their inventions they will gain both fame and wealth. From childhood, Crompton had been much alone. Spinning and weaving was not then, as now, done in big factories. He knew very little about the world, and less about how valuable a great invention might be.

Crompton's Mule


Crompton worked on the new machine from the time he was twenty-one until he was twenty-six. He says: "The next five years had this . . . added to my labor as a weaver . . . , a continuous endeavor to make a more perfect spinning machine. Though often baffled, I as often renewed the attempt, and at length succeeded to my utmost desire, at the expense of every shilling I had in the world." It might be added, at the expense also of the good will of his neighbors.

Strange sounds were heard coming from Crompton's home. Lights were seen at all hours of the night. The rumor went about that the house was haunted. It was soon discovered that Crompton was the ghost. But when relieved of their fears of a ghost, the neighbors found that they had in their midst a "conjuror," the term of contempt applied to an inventor. So Crompton became an object of suspicion.

Hardly was the first mule completed, when the anti-machine riots of 1779 broke out. Mobs of spinners and weavers went about crying, "Men, not machines." Rioters went everywhere, destroying all the jennies and water frames they could lay their hands on, especially all jennies having more than twenty spindles. The usual number was eighty. Crompton knew that his invention would arouse the rioters even more than the jenny or the water frame. Fearing that they would destroy it, he took it to pieces and hid it in the garret of his workroom. There it lay for weeks, before he had courage to bring it down and put it together. He now learned for the first time what his machine would do. After a little practice, he could spin yarn on it fine enough for the most delicate muslin.

His invention is called the mule, because it combines in one machine the best points in Arkwright's water frame and the best points in Hargreaves' spinning jenny. Before this, the greatest length of yarn ever spun from a pound of cotton was less than 70,000 yards. With the mule, it was possible to spin, from a single pound of cotton, a thread 300,000 yards in length.

Crompton's only idea in inventing the mule, as stated before, was to make a machine for his own use. The way before him now seemed clear, and he married. For a few months he prospered, and he and his wife were happy. But such a valuable invention could not be kept a secret long. Crompton's yarn was the finest that came to the market, and he received the highest price for it.

His neighbors began to ask, "How can Sam Crompton make such fine yarn? He must have a new kind of spinning machine." Some of them went to his home to see. Crompton, of course, tried to keep them from learning about his invention. He wanted to be let alone, so that he might reap the fruits of his labor. He even went so far as to put a special lock on his workroom, and to put screens at the windows. But his neighbors were not to be outdone. They called at unexpected times. They even brought ladders and looked over the screens. One fellow, it is said, lay in the loft overhead for days, and peeped down through a knot hole.

This spying almost drove Crompton mad. He even thought of breaking his invention to pieces. "A few months reduced me," he afterwards wrote, "to the cruel necessity either of destroying my machine altogether or of giving it up to the public. It was not in my power to keep it and work it. To destroy it, I could not think of that; to give up that for which I had labored so long was cruel. I had no patent nor the means of purchasing one. In preference to destroying it, I gave it to the public."

To induce him to do this, some manufacturers promised to raise a liberal purse. The total subscription amounted to only about three hundred and thirty dollars, but no sooner was the invention made public than the subscriptions stopped. Worse still, some of the subscribers refused to pay what they had promised. Crompton scarcely received enough to make him a new mule, for he had given up to the manufacturers the one he was working with, to be used by them as a model in making others.

The first mule was a crude affair, and had not more than twenty or thirty spindles. Mules of to-day are among our most beautifully constructed machines, and some of them carry a thousand spindles. The mule, like the jenny, was first worked by a spinner, but to-day they are self-acting, that is, they work themselves. The mule as thus improved is the most wonderful of all spinning machines, and is used the world over, to spin both the warp and the woof of all the finer kinds of cotton goods, and the woof of the coarser cotton cloth.

Crompton did not go wholly unrewarded, however. In part payment for the benefits of his invention, Parliament voted him twenty-five thousand dollars. But this was soon wasted by his sons in business. A few years before his death he almost came to want. Some admiring friends then raised by private subscription a fund which gave him an annual income of three hundred dollars. Without this, he would probably have died in poverty.