© Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library
This Harrison power loom was one of the exhibits displayed at the Great Exhibition as part of the section entitled 'Machinery in Motion'. The assembly of working industrial machinery was one of the highlights of the show and was praised by a contemporary writer as 'a veritable acting industrial encyclopaedia'.
By the early nineteenth century, the spinning of yarn had been mechanised, but weaving remained largely a handicraft. In 1820, British cotton-spinning mills employed 110,000 workers, but over 250,000 handloom weavers still worked at home. This was partly because devising a power-driven loom to handle dozens of warp threads without breakage proved difficult.
As power looms became more common they led to great suffering among handloom workers. During downturns in business, manufacturers laid off independent hand-weavers, using them as a 'buffer' in order to keep the costly machines busy. For this reason the installation of new looms often met violent opposition from handloom weavers.
However, by 1851 practical power looms had become widespread and hand-weaving, except for complex or specialised fabrics, was almost extinct.