Richard Arkwright was born on December 23, 1732, in Preston, Lancashire, to a poor family. He was taught to read and write by his cousin, and later became apprenticed to a barber.
Arkwright was an ambitious man, however, and soon struck out on his own. He started a wig-making business, in the course of which he travelled widely in Great Britain, collecting hair for his wigs. On his travels, he met John Kay, who had invented a new spinning machine for the burgeoning textile industry.
Arkwright was so impressed by Kay's machine that he hired the man to build it for him. They rented a secluded house and kept so much to themselves that neighbours accused them of sorcery! It was claimed that the strange humming noises that emanated from Arkwright's house must be the sound of the devil tuning his bagpipes.
But the results were worth it. The new Spinning Frame produced a thread far stronger than anything available at that time, and it was able to spin 128 threads at one time. Equally important, from Arkwright's point of view, the machine did not require a skilled operator to run it.
Unfortunately, the size of the Spinning Frame made hand-operation impossible. Arkwright tried using horse power but finally settled on using a waterwheel to power the machine. In 1771 he and his business partners Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need established a factory on the banks of the River Derwent in Cromford, Derbyshire.
There his Spinning Frame (now called the Water Frame) was soon followed by a patented Carding Engine. The Cromford area lacked the population of workers Arkwright needed for his mill, so he built cottages and imported worker families from all over Derbyshire. The women and children worked in the mill itself, and the men worked at home turning the yarn into cloth.
Children as young as 6 years old worked from 6 AM until 7 PM, and as many as 2/3 of Arkwright's 1,900 workers were children. In this respect, he was quite typical of industrialists at the time. But he also treated his workers well, by contemporary accounts.
Arkwright was the first to successfully create a system of mass-production. His factories and his methods were widely copied throughout England and around the world.
Arkwright's bold plans to expand his business by building more factories led to the breakup of his business partnership, but his mills were immensely successful, and he expanded as far north as Scotland. He was knighted and named High Sherrif of Derbyshire. When he died on 3 August 1792, it is estimated that he possessed a personal fortune of over £500,000.