MarketInsight | Revolution and espionage of the industrial variety
In 1778, Samuel Slater went to work at the textile mill near his hometown in Derbyshire County, England. He was just 10 years old. In those days there were no child labor laws in England or America either. The family farm was struggling, and Samuel was expected to help. The mill was owned by Joseph Strutt and Richard Arkwright. Arkwright is famous for inventing an automated way to make cotton thread called the “water frame.” The water frame was powered by a wheel that turned in the river near the falls. It turned a gear that powered all the machines in the factory. A single, Arkwright machine did the work of 96 people and produced a stronger, finer thread because of increased tension. Thread spun the old-fashioned way was done by hand and called home-spun.
Four years later, Samuel’s father died, and the family sold him to Strutt as an indentured apprentice. Samuel was a bright boy and learned all there was to learn about operating a mill. Great Britain treated the water frame, and other textile machinery, as a national secret. They had a law banning any of the machines, or plans for the machines, or anyone employed in the industry, from leaving the country. America wanted this cutting-edge technology. New England entrepreneurs offered a bounty for anyone who could deliver the cutting-edge technology into their hands. Samuel read about the bounty one day in an old copy of the Philadelphia Enquirer.
Slater possessed a keen memory. Over the course of his apprenticeship, he learned everything he could about the manufacture of finished cotton thread or yarn. In 1789, he memorized schematics on the machines and headed to America. Legend says he dressed as a farmer to avoid detection as he snuck on board the ship. He told no one of his plans, not even his mother. In America, Slater met a man named Moses Brown. Moses and his partners had acquired a woolen mill in Pawtucket Rhode Island. They wanted to convert the factory to the manufacture of cotton cloth. They had acquired an Arkwright machine, but could not make it work properly. Slater promised to build a factory that produced as good a yarn “as they do in England” or he would take nothing for his work.
Slater made the water powered spinning machines work and in no time, the partnership was spinning out high-quality cotton thread and huge profits. Brown made so much money that he endowed a College in Rhode Island. They still call it Brown University today. Samuel Slater’s share of the profits made him wealthy enough to strike out on his own. He set up his own mills and factory towns across New England, like Slatersville, Rhode Island. Back in his hometown in England, they called him “Slater the Traitor.”
Slater’s first hires were children aged seven to 12. He hired five boys and two girls to operate 72 spindles. Initially, the children were paid 33 cents a week. Later, Slater would add entire families to his work force. Hiring entire families became known as the “Rhode Island System.” Women and children were a staple of the workforce in the mills of the 19th Century. In 1824, Slater increased the workday and cut wages for his all-female work force by 25 percent, arguing that their wages were extravagant. The next day, 102 female workers took to the streets, blocking the entrance to Slater’s Mill. Protestors marched through the streets making “excessive noise” and shouting, “every imaginable term of abuse or insult.” The event is remembered as the first strike in American history.
Samuel Slater had six children with his first wife and was one of America’s first millionaires when he died in 1836 at the age of 67. Before he died, President Andrew Jackson called him the “Father of American Manufacture.”
Scott A. Grant is a local author, historian, columnist, and speaker. He is president of Standfast Asset Management in Ponte Vedra Beach. He welcomes your comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.