3 August 1792: Richard Arkwright, ‘Father of the Industrial Revolution’, dies

Richard Arkwright, barber turned textiles magnate, died on this day in 1792, having revolutionised the manufacture of cloth in England.

Richard Arkwright © The Print Collector/Getty Images
Richard Arkwright
(Image credit: © The Print Collector/Getty Images)

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 around 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.

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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 Cromford, 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.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

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