Samuel Slater Biography (1768-1835)


In the late 1700s, England controlled the textile industry. This was largelydue to the spinning machines of Samuel Crompton and James Hargreaves, as wellas the water-powered machines of Sir Richard Arkwright. American industrialists were eager to dip into this profit pool; English businessmen, however, were not about to share the secrets of their trade. Several American textile companies began to offer rewards and bounties to mill workers who would emigrate from England--bringing their knowledge of textile machinery with them, of course. One of the men lured across the ocean in this way was Samuel Slater.

Slater was born in Derbyshire, England, in 1768. His father, a farmer, died when he was fourteen, at which time he was apprenticed to a neighbor, JebediahStrutt. Just a few years earlier, Strutt had entered into partnership with Arkwright to construct the first water frame spinning machine. Strutt employedSlater as the supervisor of one of his textile mills. For six and a half years Slater learned all about the process of manufacturing cotton yarn. At theend of his apprenticeship he decided to travel to the United States.

Since it was illegal to export textile technology (such as parts, designs, and sketches) Slater memorized the construction plans for the Arkwright factory. He did not tell anyone of his decision to leave the country; even his family did not learn of his departure until receiving a letter days later. At thedocks, Slater told authorities that he was a farm laborer.

He landed in Philadelphia in 1789, moving shortly afterward to New York Citywhere he took a position at the New York Manufacturing Company. His stay there was brief, however, for within a few months he made contact with Moses Brown of the Almy and Brown textile firm. Brown made Slater a generous offer: ifhe would come to Providence, Rhode Island, and set up an English-style textile factory, he would be allowed to keep all of the profits. Slater, of course,accepted.

Slater and Brown met at an old mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The idea wasto adapt the existing technology to operate as Arkwright's factories did. Itwas immediately apparent to Slater, though, that the mill's machinery was insufficient. Working from the designs he had memorized, Slater oversaw the construction of completely new machinery, almost identical to that found in English mills. It was nearly a year before the machines were complete, and anothertwo before the factory was put into operation. In 1793 the mill began producing high-quality cotton yarn.

Although the little factory in Pawtucket enjoyed relative success, it took six years for the venture to be profitable enough to consider expansion. In 1789 Almy, Brown, and Slater opened a second mill, then a third, and eventuallycontrolled the production of cotton yarn in much of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

One of the keys to the success of Slater's mills was the use of children--particularly those between the ages of four and ten. Unlike most sweat-shops employing children, the conditions within Slater's factories were quite comfortable, with the children receiving good food and working relatively short hours. In a society where the same children would be put to work on the family farm as soon as they could stand, employment in a textile factory was highly coveted.

In 1798, Slater and his brothers (who had emigrated to the U.S. a few years after him) started their own corporation, Samuel Slater & Company. The primary goal of this company was the production and marketing of a new sewing thread made from very fine cotton yarn, which replaced the more expensive linenthread that had been commonly used. This thread had been invented by none other than Slater's wife, Hannah. She received a patent for her thread--probably the first American patent issued to a woman.

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