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Industrial Revolution Key Individuals

Get to know about the people who played important roles in the Industrial Revolution

James Hargreaves

Like the majority of inventors of the industrial age, Hargreaves received little formal education and was essentially illiterate. Despite this, he made one of the most significant contributions to the era by inventing the ‘spinning jenny’, a hand powered multiple spinning machine that was patented in 1764. His early work as a weaver caused him to notice that production was slowed by the rate at which thread could be produced from raw cotton. His invention was the first major improvement on the spinning wheel and was essentially a hand-powered multiple spinning machine, with eight spindles being controlled by a single wheel. Although early versions were little more than eight spinning wheels turned on their side and bolted together, productivity was increased eight-fold and the machine could be operated with little skill or strength. The capacity of the machine grew with each future version; Hargreaves patented a sixteen spindle jenny in 1170 but the design eventually evolved until up to eighty wheels could be operated by one person. Hargreaves’ invention transformed textiles from a cottage industry, carried out small-scale in people’s homes, to something mass produced in factories. Perhaps understandably, this resulted in a backlash against Hargreaves from workers who felt their skills had been made redundant; in 1768, Hargreaves’ house was broken into and many of his machines were destroyed.

Richard Arkwright

Arkwright is known as the ‘father of the factories’ and was one of the most significant entrepreneurs of the industrial age. His early work as a barber developed into a focus on wig manufacture, just as the fashion for male headwear began to decline. As he looked for new avenues to make profit, he utilised his contacts with weavers and traders and began to develop a new carding machine, to improve the efficiency of forming strands of cotton ready for spinning. After financial investment from John Kay, he then progressed to a new design of spinning machine in 1768 which enabled stronger wool to be produced with less effort required, up to 128 threads at a time. These innovations led to Arkwright setting up the first horse driven spinning mill in Preston. He then spread this idea across Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Lancaster and Scotland, creating the first mills that used one machine for the entire manufacturing process with clear divisions of labour. Arkwright’s fame led to a number of court cases being launched against him and he lost many patents in 1785 as a result of claims that he had copied the ideas of others. Despite this, Arkwright died a wealthy man, having amassed a £500,000 fortune by 1786

James Watt

Although the steam engine had already been invented by Thomas Newcomen, Watt was the engineer who began to produce multiple machines that were commercially viable and sold by the Bouton and Watt Company. After he was given one of Newcomen’s machines to repair, the inventor realised he could improve on the design. Watt’s version of the steam engine was four times more powerful than Newcomen’s and much more efficient; by creating a separate condensing chamber to cool the water without needing to cool down the whole machine, the system could operate continuously. After receiving funding from John Roebuck, Watt started selling his machines in 1775 and then proceeded to produce further innovations, such as a steam pressure gauge to record pressure in the cylinder and a rotary engine to drive the machinery. This latter invention became invaluable to the spinning, weaving and transport industries. James Watt was a well known name in Victorian England and one of the new units to measure electrical power was named the ‘Watt’ in honour of his contribution to technology.

James Brindley

After little formal education, Brindley spent his early adulthood working on designs for steam engines that would drain water from coal mines and then from textile mills. Yet, his real contribution to the industrial age lay in the design of canals that would enable the mass produced goods from the factories to be transported across England much more efficiently. In 1759, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater commissioned the Bridgewater Canal to transport coal from Worsley to Manchester and by 1761, Brindley had created a ten mile waterway, complete with innovative features like the Barton aqueduct, which enabled ships to pass easily over the River Irwell. The Bridgewater Canal became the first of major economic importance and Brindley then moved on to others, including the Trent and Mersey Canal. In total, he was responsible for over 365 miles of waterway, most of the narrow design with locks and bridges that would come to characterise the age of ‘canal mania’. The canals enabled a rapid improvement in distribution and trade but also in communication, fuelling the industrial age.