Erastus Brigham Bigelow Biography (1814-1879)


One of the keys to the English Industrial Revolution was the development of the water frame spinning machine. This device, invented in 1769 by Sir RichardArkwright, accelerated the spinning process to such a degree that the entiretextile industry was forced to modernize itself in order to keep up with yarn production. In the United States, a similar revolution was facilitated by the invention of the power loom for the weaving of carpets. Like the water frame, the power loom forced the entire American textile industry to operate more efficiently. The inventor of the power loom was Erastus Bigelow. Bigelow was born in West Boylston, Massachusetts. The small farm where he was raised could not provide enough to feed and clothe him and his brother, and at a fairly young age the boys were forced to earn their own keep. For many years Bigelow labored on neighboring farms, played violin at the local church, taught penmanship to the town's children, and performed other odd jobs. At the age ofeighteen he wrote and published a stenography textbook, earning a small sum of money in the process; he invested his profits in a second, larger volume that he attempted to market across New England. His attempts were unsuccessful,and he soon found himself several hundred dollars in debt. During this timeBigelow had been studying medicine at the Leicester Academy, with the intention of continuing at Harvard. Forced by his financial situation to leave school, he turned his attention toward becoming an inventor. It is not clear whatinspired Bigelow to concentrate on loom technology; whatever the reason, he developed in 1837 a power loom for the weaving of lace. It was immensely successful, and Bigelow soon realized that the basic principles behind his loom could be adapted to produce ginghams and other fabrics. In 1838 he, along withhis older brother, founded the Clinton Company to build and operate his new looms. The company became so successful that the town in which it was based became known as Clintonville and, eventually, Clinton, Massachusetts. The nextthirty years were very productive for Bigelow. His power looms were adapted to make the very popular Brussels, Wilton, tapestry, and velvet carpets, as well as counterpanes and pile fabrics. He patented almost every device used inthe production of carpeting in the United States and England, most of which are still used today (with some modifications). Outside of the textile industry, Bigelow was very active in social and political forums. He ran for Congress in 1860, but was defeated by a handful of votes. He was a respected economist, publishing several volumes on English and American tariff policies (he was a staunch advocate of American protectionism). In 1861 he was part of the twenty-one member committee that established the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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