and Dan Nosowitz
1789: The Father/Spy of the American Industrial Revolution
Samuel Slater is known to America’s youth as the “father of the American Industrial Revolution,” an epithet given to him by Andrew Jackson. Wikipedia lists his occupation as “industrialist.” Both are accurate. But another, no less accurate description would be “industrial spy of the highest order.”
By the late 18th century, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in England. Decades of work in automation had led to the creation of several key machines, like the water-driven spinning wheel patented by Richard Arkwright in 1768. The spinning wheel enabled workers to spin more cotton threads than ever before, and the workings of the machine was kept a close secret. And why wouldn’t it be? Unlike America, with its miles and miles of cotton plantations, England had no such natural resources to rely on–its factories were everything.
Enter Samuel Slater, one of the greatest industrial spies the world has ever seen.
Samuel Slater was a child worker at a factory using Arkwright machines, and was indentured to and trained by Jebediah Strutt, the owner of the factory. By the time he turned 21, in 1789, coastal cities like Providence, Boston, and New York were struggling to industrialize. Factories began to pop up, but they were often unsuccessful.
Slater heard of the struggles of the coastal American cities, and thanks to his many years of work on Arkwright machines was well-versed in English industrial processes. But Slater’s real coup was memorizing in exacting detail, down to the smallest intricacies, the precise workings of the spinning wheel. He learned it so thoroughly, in fact, that he’d be able to reproduce it without having to smuggle highly illegal written plans. In 1789, he left England for New York.
By 1790, Slater had written a boastful letter to the Almy & Brown mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, promising to build them a spinning wheel just like those in England. “If I do not make as good yarn, as they do in England,” he wrote, “I will have nothing for my services, but will throw the whole of what I have attempted over the bridge.” The promise was enough for co-owner Moses Brown, who contracted Slater to build the machines in 1790. Despite the small and, by some accounts, not-entirely-competent staff, Almy & Brown were able to open a factory by 1793, thanks to Slater’s pirated designs. Slater’s new wife, Hannah, helped immensely as well, inventing a type of cotton sewing thread and becoming the first American woman to be granted a patent.
One factory later, in 1798 Slater split from Almy & Brown and formed Samuel Slater & Company, opening multiple mills and factories and even modeling his management style after the ones he learned in England, even hiring child workers. Slater eventually spread himself a little thin, but his sons proved to be adept managers and by the time of his death in 1835, Slater owned a whopping 13 mills. Thanks to the efforts of his sons (and, no doubt, to the embargo on British goods imposed in the lead-up to the War of 1812), Slater became a millionaire and his original mill, pictured here, now functions as a museum–to the greatest information thief of the industrial age.