Richard Arkwright and His Wonderful Machine: The Water Frame

The water frame helped kick start the entire industrial revolution and made Richard Arkwright a rich man.
Christopher McFadden

Richard Arkwright's water frame was one of the most significant inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Almost overnight, Arkwright would go from being a wig maker to one of the richest men in the world. 

His invention would also kickstart the entire Industrial Revolution, earning him the title of "The Father of the Industrial Revolution". 


Who was Richard Arkwright?

Richard Arkwright, born in Lancashire, England in 1732, was the youngest of 13 children. He apprenticed with a barber and wig maker.

His apprenticeship led to his first career as a wig maker, during which he collected hair to make wigs and developed a technique for dyeing the hair to make different-colored wigs.

Building on his experience, Arkwright helped develop and build the first spinning machine that was able to produce cotton thread without the need for skilled human labor. His water frame is widely considered one of the most important inventions of the Industrial Revolution.

So much so, that some call him "The Father of the Industrial Revolution". 

Why was the water frame significance?

The significance of the water frame cannot be understated. It was, at the time, an absolute revolution in technology. 

So much so, that it can be argued that the later developments of the Industrial Revolution might not have occurred without it. 

Prior to its invention thread and yarn were produced by hand which was a very time consuming and laborious process. While incredibly skilled, this production method was relatively slow and inefficient.

water frame replica
A working example of Arkwright's water frame, Helmshore Mills Textile Museum. Source: ClemRutter/Wikimedia Commons

This all changed when Richard Arkwright, a wig maker and barber in Bolton, England, had a brainwave. He realized that if he could produce a machine that could turn cotton into fiber or yarn he would make a lot of money.

Some spinning devices did exist prior to Arkwright's work, like the "Spinning Jenny", but the thread it was able to produce was considerably stronger. 

In 1760, Arkwright teamed up with a clockmaker, John Kay, to design and build the first iteration of what would become the water frame. By the late 1760s, the pair had a working machine that was able to spin four strands of cotton yarn at the same time.

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He quickly protected his intellectual property by filing for a patent in 1769. 

Building on their early models, Kay and Arkwright refined the design and soon had machines that could spin tens of threads simultaneously. The machines didn't require skilled labor to operate and, as such, unskilled women and other workers were often 'put to the task' to operate them.

This lack of need for highly skills operators adding significant cost savings to any mills that installed them.

Arkwright would go on to open several mills around Derbyshire and Lancashire, all powered by water wheels, hence the name water frame. His spinning mills were the earliest examples of factories where hundreds of workers had to keep pace with the speed of the machines.

Arkwright would become a very rich man and amassed a fortune of around £30 million in today's money. Most of this was made through the building and licensing of his machines to cotton mills around the country. 

What is Arkwright's water frame?

Arkwright's water frame is one of the most significant inventions of the Industrial Revolution. It was a significant improvement on existing cotton spinning methods of the period.

The spinning frame was the first powered, automatic and continuous textile machine in the world and enabled production to move away from small homes to large purpose-built factories. It, in no small part, helped kick start the Industrial Revolution around the world

Richard Arkwright developed the water frame around 1775. The machines could not be operated by hand and needed to be driven by water wheels.

"These spinning machines were driven by water power at Arkwright's Cromford mill, hence the name of Water Frame. This is an improvement on 1860-4, having an arrangement for guiding the yarn evenly over the bobbins.

A belt from an external main driving pulley drives eight spindles. Textile machinery such as this item revolutionized manufacturing processes in the cotton industry and elsewhere during the early Industrial Revolution." - Science Museum Group. 

Arkwright would go on to build his first textile mill in Cromford, England in 1774. Arkwright was a financial success, though he later lost his patent rights for the spinning frame, opening the door for a proliferation of textile mills.

Arkwright's water frame enabled manufacturers to produce high-quality and stronger threads and yarns than ever before. It would make not only Arkwright a wealthy man, but also helped make Britain one of the most powerful nations in the world. 

Arkwright died a rich man in 1792.

What was the effect of the water frame?

Inspired, or jealous, of Arkwright's commercial success, many other entrepreneurs of the period began to see the benefits of building factories. Arkwright built his first textile mill in Cromford, England in 1774.

water frame example
An example of Arkwright's water frame, circa 1775, Manchester Museum of Science and Technology.Source: Chris55/Wikimedia Commons

This factory proved to be highly successful, and under Arkwright's management, it would become a powerhouse of the early textile industry in the UK.

"After he had built his factory in Cromford, Arkwright realized that he would need more people to work in it. Cromford was only a small town and there were not enough people to do all the work he needed.

Arkwright built many cottages near his textile mill and brought people from the surrounding areas to come and live in them and work in his mill. He encouraged families to move to the area. In total, he employed more than 1,000 people." -

Arkwright's groundbreaking work would soon lead to many new factories appearing all around the United Kingdom. This would lead, eventually, to the industrialization of many other industries; notably the steel industry.

With the flood gates opened, many more technological developments were made and copied around the world. The Industrial Revolution had begun its long march to the present day. 

How did Arkwright's spinning frame, work?

Arkwright's water frame was able to produce strong cotton threads with little human intervention. Early models were powered by waterwheels which forced early factories to be located near waterways. 

"Arkwright's machine involved three sets of paired rollers that turned at different speeds. While these rollers produced yarn of the correct thickness, a set of spindles twisted the fibers firmly together.

The machine was able to produce a thread that was far stronger than that made by the Spinning-Jenny produced by James Hargreaves." - Spartacus Educational. 

Because the spinning frame was much too large to be hand-operated, another means of power was needed. 

"After experimenting with horses, Arkwright decided to employ the power of the water-wheel. In 1771 he set up a large factory next to the River Derwent in Cromford, Derbyshire. Arkwright's machine now became known as the Water-Frame." - Spartacus Educational. 

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