A look back at days long gone 
 
Looms burned
I wrote last week about the early life and career of Edmund Cartwright (1743 - 1823), the inventor of the power loom.

Cartwright was born at Marnham to the north of Newark and his power loom - invented in 1785 - became one of the most important machines developed for the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution.

Sir Richard Arkwright had already mechanised the production of cotton thread, but it was Cartwright's power loom which became the first successful machine to weave that thread into cotton cloth.

The efficiency of Cartwright's invention, however, was not proved overnight. His first machine, though workable, was more cumbersome and less efficient than the existing hand looms.

It took a whole series of improvements and new patents before, finally, in 1788, his machine had reached a point where the three component processes of weaving - shedding, picking and beat-up - could be performed with sufficient speed and efficiency.

Cartwright moved to Doncaster and built a mill fitted out with his own looms, powered by a water wheel.

By later standards his mill was of modest proportions and it was certainly not perceived as posing any great threat to the livelihood of existing hand loom operators.

When, however, in 1791, he contracted with a Manchester firm who were building a factory containing 400 Cartwright looms, alarm bells began to ring.

The company began to receive threatening letters and after only 24 looms had been installed the factory was mysteriously burned to the ground.

Organised, widespread outbreaks of machine-breaking under the Luddites were still a number of years away, but the mill owners of Manchester took note: bulk orders for Cartwright's looms failed to materialise.

A similar reception was also being meted out to another of Cartwright's textile inventions, a wool combing machine.

This, if anything, may be considered an even more original invention than his power loom, although it too suffered opposition from existing wool workers.

As with the power loom, Cartwright's wool combing machine brought considerable efficiency savings and even in the early stages of its development could do the work of 20 hand combers.

By employing a single set of machines it was calculated that a manufacturer could save more than £1,000 per annum.

Predictably, the country's wool combers (a fraternity said to comprise about 50,000 people) were greatly alarmed by these claims and, fearing for their jobs, petitioned parliament to restrict or even prevent its use.

So formidable seemed their opposition that Cartwright, in a counter-petition, expressed his readiness to limit the number of machines to be released in any one year.

The House of Commons appointed a committee to inquire into the matter, and while little came of the wool combers agitation, Cartwright's machine was not widely taken up by wool manufacturers.

With both his wool combing machine and power loom failing to take off Cartwright found himself close to financial ruin.

He had invested a great deal of his personal wealth in developing the machines, and other members of the family had become involved in servicing the debts.

The family property in sold and in 1793, still very much out of pocket and more than a little disillusioned, Edmund Cartwright turned his back on the textile industry for good. He moved to a small house in London and began to exercise his inventive mind in other directions.

In 1795 he patented a new form of interlocking brick for house construction which as well as being immensely strong was also effectively fire-proof.

The bricks were widely feted as an excellent innovation, but since they proved far too expensive to produce, the scheme was never a commercial viability.

Two years later Cartwright patented a design for an improved steam engine in which alcohol vapour instead of steam was used to power the mechanism.

This was followed in 1823 by one powered by gun powder. Perhaps fortunately this last was never built.

In later years Edmund Cartwright removed to a small farm in Kent where he tended his crops and experimented with several new agricultural improvements.

In 1800 the 9th Duke of Bedford gave him the management of an experimental farm at Woburn, where he remained until 1807.

At Woburn he promoted many of his own agricultural improvements which were subsequently recognised both by the Society of Arts and the board of agriculture.

He also continued his religious activities, acting as domestic chaplain to the duke. In 1804 Cartwright's patents on the power loom expired and with improvements made by other hands, Cartwright finally saw his invention become a source of considerable profit to many Lancashire manufacturers.

In August 1807 some 50 prominent Manchester industrialists signed a memorial to the Prime Minister (the Duke of Portland) asking the government to recognise the services Cartwright had rendered to the country by his invention.

Parliament voted him the sum of £10,000 -about a third of what Cartwright calculated his inventions had cost him. Edmund Cartwright died peacefully in 1823.

Although his early attempts to introduce his power loom and wool combing machine had met with hostility, he lived to see his inventions become an integral part of Britain's textile industry - an industry which it was said in the 19th Century, helped to clothe the world.

ABOVE: This fine engraving of power looms in operation in the 19th Century was published in 1835. The machines owe their originto the work of Edmund Cartwright of Marnham 50 years earlier.
 

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