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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
Stories about the lives we've made

Icon:Richard Arkwright's textile innovations, 1765-75

related ingenious images © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

Richard Arkwright is indelibly associated with the changes in production that came to be known as the 'Industrial Revolution'. His particular talent was for exploiting innovation rather than for actual invention, and his machines all had their origins in earlier efforts by others.

Arkwright's lasting monument is the factory (or mill, as it was known in the textile industry). This concept arose from his appreciation that the manufacture of cotton yarn was a series of operations which could be undertaken in sequence by a suite of special purpose machines, gathered together in a single place and driven by a single power source.

Before Arkwright's innovations most textiles were made in the homes of the spinners and weavers and the production of cotton was low, relative to wool and linen. After Arkwright, production became centralised in factories, designed to make efficient use of a range of machines, and to allow the management of labour.

The Arkwright system helped to establish Britain's position in the nineteenth century as the world leader in textile production, but it also had wider international effects. British machine spinning led to the destruction of the Indian cotton-spinning industry, while demand for raw cotton sustained the slave economy in the USA.

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