Richard Arkwright was born in 1732, the 13th child of a Preston tailor. He never went to school, but was taught by his cousin, became apprenticed to a barber, and set up shop in Bolton.
Then, thinking there would be more money in it, he started making wigs. He travelled round the country, doing deals and making contacts, and invented a waterproof wig dye that gave him enough money to get out of the wig game just as gentlemen’s hairpieces went out of fashion.
At the time, an awful lot of people were trying to work out how to automate the manufacture of textiles. There were plenty of riches on offer to the man (or woman!) who could crack it. So Arkwright turned his attention to doing just that.
He and a man called John Kay came up with a machine – the water frame – that could spin cotton in industrial amounts, cheaply and quickly, using unskilled labour. He built a water-powered mill in a Derbyshire village, where he employed whole families, children included, housed in company accommodation. He expanded rapidly, and made extra money by licensing his patents to other manufacturers.
However, despite being credited with all sorts of inventions, he was dragged through the courts, accused of stealing the work of others.
Thomas Highs of Leigh (and others) sued him for infringing his patents. Highs claimed, among other things, that he had given John Kay his plans for a spinning machine for him to make a model, only for Kay to betray him and sell them to Arkwright.
Many of Arkwright’s patents were overturned, but nevertheless, Highs died in obscurity and poverty in 1803, while Arkwright was knighted and entered the history books as the inventor of the modern factory system. He died on this day in 1792, leaving a fortune of £500,000.