The Spies Who Launched America’s Industrial Revolution

Today, America is concerned about intellectual property theft, but there was a time when it actively encouraged it, and these are some of the men who spied for her.
Marcia Wendorf
Source: Hinweise zur lizenzgerechten Weiterverwendung des Bildes/Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia

On a September day in 1789, a 21-year-old named Samuel Slater boarded a ship in London bound for New York City. No one in his family knew he was leaving England, and he presented himself to his fellow travelers as a simple farm hand. In fact, he was anything but, he was a man with a remarkable memory.

Samuel Slater
Samuel Slater Source: National Biographical Publishing Company/Wikimedia Commons

As a 14-year-old, Slater had been apprenticed to a friend of his father's, Jedediah Strutt, who operated the Cromford Cotton Mill in Derbyshire. Derbyshire was like Silicon Valley is today, it was home to Richard Arkwright's remarkable "water frame", which spun cotton on dozens of spindles at one time. As an apprentice, Samuel Slater had been particularly adept at adjusting and maintaining this machinery.


A Crime to Leave the Country

The textile industry was so important that in 1774, the British government had criminalized both the export of textile machinery and the emigration of cotton, mohair and linen operators. The government was particularly on the lookout for technical drawings of textile machinery leaving the country.

At that time, America was the leading supplier of cotton to the world, but it was in the peculiar position of producing a raw product — cotton — but having no domestic textile manufacturing industry. Slater was about to change all that because in his head, he carried the design of Arkwright's machines and processes.

"Machines to Abridge Labor"

Months before taking the oath of office as the first president of the United States in 1789, George Washington wrote to Thomas Jefferson that "the introduction of the late improved machines to abridge labor, must be of almost infinite consequence to America." In his 1791 "Report on Manufactures," Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton had advocated for rewarding people who brought "improvements and secrets of extraordinary value" into the U.S.

Upon landing in New York, Slater hired on at a textile plant, but he soon learned of a textile manufacturer in Providence, Rhode Island named Moses Brown who had been trying to replicate the English mechanized cotton-spinning process without success. Slater wrote to him and Brown brought Slater in as a partner.

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Working only from memory, Slater not only recreated Arkwright's machine, but he made improvements of his own. Within a year, on December 20, 1790, America had its first water-powered cotton spinning mill.

Slater's mill
Slater's mill Source: Forest J. Handford/Wikimedia Commons

By 1815, within a 30-mile radius of Providence, there were an additional 140 mills operating over 130,000 spindles, and the American industrial revolution had officially begun. Slater went on to build several successful cotton mills in New England, and he established the town of Slatersville, Rhode Island.

American President Andrew Jackson dubbed Slater the "Father of American Manufactures," while in his hometown of Belper in Derbyshire, Slater became known as "Slater the Traitor." Slater’s wife, Hannah Wilkinson Slater, became the first woman to receive a U.S. patent for her invention of cotton sewing thread.

Another Man With a Remarkable Memory

Even more damage to the British textile manufacturing industry was done by Harvard graduate and Boston merchant Francis Cabot Lowell. Lowell was another man with a remarkable memory. He was a successful Boston merchant when the Embargo of 1807 hit, severely disrupting trade between the U.S., Great Britain, France and Asia.

Lowell became convinced that the only way for the U.S. to be truly independent, was for it to manufacture goods at home. In June 1810, Lowell set out on a two-year trip with his family to Scotland and England, ostensibly as a cure for his poor health.


Mill owners in Lancashire and Scotland were only too happy to show the elegant American their spinning and weaving machines that were operated by water or steam power. Lowell asked few questions and took no notes. When the War of 1812 began, Lowell and his family left for home, but the British were so nervous that they had all the Lowell family's personal belongings searched. When they found no plans, Lowell and his family were allowed to continue their journey.

The plans the British were searching for were all in Lowell's head. After arriving home, Lowell established the Boston Manufacturing Company at Waltham, Massachusetts, which was the first "integrated" textile mill in America. All operations for converting raw cotton into finished cloth were performed in one mill building. The city of Lowell, Massachusetts is named for Lowell.

Boston Manufacturing Company
Boston Manufacturing Company Source: Marc N. Belanger/Wikimedia Commons

Legalized Industrial Spying

Before Samuel Slater's defection, Britain had been granting what were called "patents of importation" which didn’t require the applicant to be an inventor so long as the invention was new within Britain. This encouraged the British to "steal" ideas from abroad and bring them home.

America did the same thing with its Patent Act of 1793. With it, the U.S. granted patents to Americans who had pirated technology from other countries, while at the same time, barring foreign inventors from receiving patents. In his book Hot Property: The Stealing of Ideas in an Age of Globalization, author Pat Choate wrote, "America thus became, by national policy and legislative act, the world’s premier legal sanctuary for industrial pirates." "Any American could bring a foreign innovation to the United States and commercialize the idea, all with total legal immunity."

It would take another hundred years before international intellectual property laws were created.

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