Britain's Two Greatest Inventions

ENG: The Northwest Region, Lancashire, The Pennines, Burnley Borough, Briercliffe, Queen Street Mill, A docent runs a belt-powered loom on a fully functioning factory floor of this steam-powered Victorian textile plant [Ask for #270.394.]


Power looms run in an authentic Victorian factory, the Queen Street Mill, located in Briercliffe, near Burnley in Lancashire. [Ask for #270.394.]

The lowly loom – the kind used in factories – gets no respect. It’s just another piece of industrial equipment, something that manages the feat of being both mysterious and uninteresting. That’s undeserved. Developed and heavily exploited in Britain, the power loom is one of the two most important inventions since prehistoric times. The heck with clothing; it influences everything we do, suffuses every corner of our lives.

North Carolina: Central Mountains Region, Transylvania County, Pisgah National Forest, Davidson River Area, The Cradle of Forestry In America, Hand loom, viewed through window of log cabin [Ask for #212.208.]


A hand loom, once common in weavers' cottages throughout England's Pennines. This loom is in North Carolina, part of The Cradle Of Forestry In America museum in the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard. [Ask for #212.208.]
ENG: The Northwest Region, Lancashire, The Pennines, Burnley Borough, Briercliffe, Queen Street Mill, Belt-powered looms fill the factory floor of this fully functional steam powered Victorian textile plant [Ask for #270.397.]


A flying shuttle lies on a Victorian era power loom at the Queen Street Mill, a fully functional textile factory in Briercliffe, Burnley, Lancaster. [Ask for #270.397.]

It was the flying shuttle that transformed the loom from a household appliance to a powerhouse of civilization. Invented in 1733 by Englishman John Kay, the flying shuttle mechanized looms to the point where large scale industrialization became possible. Derbyshire’s Richard Arkwright invented the factory in 1771 precisely in order to run this sort of loom more efficiently. He invented a gigantic loom with a flying shuttle that ran on water power instead of a foot treadle. Then he built a huge brick building at Cromford, Derbyshire, to house a bunch of them. Finally, he did the really innovative part: he organized the local workers (who had been running small treadle looms in their cottages as freelancers) into a disciplined if restive army held to a tight schedule, each required to do a specific task. Breaking up the weaving process into discreet parts allowed a group of unskilled workers to produce more than the same number of skilled workers. This was completely new – the first modern factory. Arkwright’s original factory still stands, and is open to the public.

The vast increase in production at a far lower cost allowed factory owners to flood the market with cheap goods and accumulate gargantuan sums of money. Cromford’s river gorge promptly filled with ever larger water powered factories, and factories quickly spread to any place with a good water power source. It was adapted to everything, from smelting iron to making fine porcelains. The loom, specifically the power loom, caused this.

SCO: Strathclyde Region, Argyll & Bute, Inner Hebrides, Islay, Port Ellen, Lagavulin, General view of distillery entrance, showing foot bridge over old mill stream. [Ask for #246.376.]


A factory is built around a series of machines arranged to allow materials to flow through with a minimum of labor. The system could be adapted to nearly anything, including whiskey. This factory on Scotland's Islay has been producing Lagavulin whiskey since it opened in 1816. [Ask for #246.376.]

Arkwright’s loom-filled factory didn’t just increase production; it reorganized labor. Before, skilled cottage-based craftsmen had been a chokepoint; there weren't that many of them, and it was hard to train new ones and get them up to speed. This meant that they could, and did, bargain for higher remuneration. The new factory jobs needed no skills at all, and could be filled by itenerant laborers already making starvation pay with unstable work. Factories drove craftsmen out of business, then bought them back at much lower rates and worse working conditions. When Adam Smith discussed all this in his Wealth of Nations he didn’t mean to set out universal economic laws or justify the abuse of workers. Instead, he wanted to describe a brand-new economic system, based on the division of labor made possible by factories, that could vastly increase the wealth available to society. So the loom was not only responsible for factories, it was responsible for Smith’s economic theory – the basis for modern economic theory.

While Smith was concerned about the deteriorating well-being of the working class his suggestions for ameliorating this were largely ignored. Marx saw this deterioration as inevitable, deplorable, and unsustainable, and so created a vision of life without it, a life without classes, without alienated workers, without differences in wealth or the existence of a state. Of course the transtion to such a life would require workers to form a dictatorship to forceably sieze the means of production from wealthy owners. Marx then convinced people that this prophetic vision was somehow “scientific”. Later on, one Marxist regime after another decided they liked being dictators of the proletariat and couldn't put up with those who had insufficient class consciousness. The loom led to this too.

ENG: East Midlands Region, Derbyshire, Peak National Park, The River Dove, Milldale, View toward the village from the hills above. [Ask for #246.298.]


Before Arkwright built his factory in nearby Cromford, the village of Milldale on the River Dove would have been home to skilled weavers who did piecework on their hand looms. [Ask for #246.298.]
SCO: Strathclyde Region, South Lanarkshire, Clydesdale, Lanark, New Lanark Mills, Period machinery, in operation [Ask for #268.619.]


The spinning mule produced thread and yarn for the looms, often (as here) in the same factory. This operating spinner is in Scotland's New Lanark World Heritage Site. [Ask for #268.619.]

The loom also led to computers. Standard histories credit Charles Babbage with inventing the first mechanical computer in 1822, but this was a dead-end, never built, it’s principles ignored and having little influence on successor machines. Besides, computers had already been invented. Joseph Marie Jacquard invented the Jacquard loom around 1810, a device capable of producing complex patterns automatically. It did this using a long roll of cards with holes punched in them to constantly instruct the loom to change its settings (once again making a bunch of skilled craftsmen redundant). It spread rapidly through Britain, where it was adapted to other machines as well. How closely does this match to a modern computer? The Jacquard loom was programmed with punched cards, and used this program to continuously calculate changes in the loom settings. If this doesn’t qualify as a true computer, it makes for a pretty solid precursor.

But the loom did more than foreshadow the computer, it brought it about, a direct ancestor. In the 1880s American inventor Herman Hollerith realized that these punched cards could hold pure information, not just machine instructions. Specifically, you could encode information by using the holes; a punched out hole would be a one (or Yes or True) and an unpunched one would be a zero (or No or False). The US Census Bureau used a Hollerith Machine to produce the 1890 Census, and businesses promptly picked them up. (Hollerith’s company would become IBM.) In the 20th Century scientists realized that you could replace the punched holes with vacuum tubes and later transistors; holding a charge would be the same as having a punched hole, while not holding a charge would be the same as having an unpunched hole. But the punch cards continued in use for decades as a permanent way of storing the transient information of the charged/uncharged transistors.

Factories, modern economic theory, Marxism, computers – surely the loom qualifies as the most important of modern inventions. So let’s talk about water wheels.

SCO: Highland Region, Skye & Lochalsh District, Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides, Dunvegan Area, Glendale, on Loch Pooltiel, Water mill, with overshot wheel and thatched roof, beneath sea cliffs [Ask for #111.041.]


A traditional overshot waterwheel and gristmill on Scotland's Isle of Skye, near Dunvegan. [Ask for #111.041.]
SCO: The Lowlands Region, Dumfries and Galloway District, Dumfries Area, New Abbey, A mill race runs through the village [Ask for #108.045.]


A stone mill race feeds a traditional grist mill at New Abbey near Dumfries, Scotland. [Ask for #108.045.]

Specifically, let’s talk about water engines. The earliest true engine is the vertical water wheel, invented by the Romans in the 2nd Century BC. Unlike the horizontal water wheel, already in common use for centuries, the vertical wheel could produce vast amounts of power and direct it into a large, heavy, and complex geared system – a true engine. The most common use of water wheels was grinding grain, but they were also used (again by the Romans) to pump water out of mines. These continued in use throughout the Dark Ages and Medieval period but really came into their own with Arkwright’s factory system.

Britain adapted the water wheel to large scale industry. Water wheels, not steam engines, powered the first generation of Britain’s factories – and continued to power many of their successors well into the 20th Century, when they were finally superceded by the completion of the electrical grid. These were not narrow overshot wheels attached to the side. Rather, these were arrays of massive wheels, squat and wide, sitting under the building (to protect them from weather). The last use of a water wheel to power a full scale factory that I can find is Glencoe Mill in Burlington, NC (restored and its grounds open to the public), which installed a new water wheel power system in 1951.

North Carolina: Lower Piedmont Region, Alamance County, Haw River Area, Glencoe Village, Mill dam on the Haw River, powering a 19th century textile mill; it was reconstructed in the 20th century. The Mountains To Sea Trail passes here. [Ask for #263.168.]


This concrete mill dam over the Haw River at Burlington, NC, fed what may be the last water mill to be installed for a full sized commercial factory in the industrial world. It was built in 1951 for the Glencoe Mill, whose exterior, complete with interpretive signs, is open to the public. [Ask for #263.168.]
SCO: Strathclyde Region, South Lanarkshire, Clydesdale, Lanark, New Lanark Mills, Mill Race [Ask for #268.629.]


Factories would use an array of giant water wheels placed underneath the building. They needed a lot of water. This is the millrace that feeds the water wheels at New Lanark, south of Glasgow in Scotland. [Ask for #268.629.]

By the late 17th Century English inventors were trying to develop a radically new type of engine, one that would use steam pressure instead of the dead weight of water. In 1712 Englishman Thomas Newcomen solved the technical problems and produced the first steam engine to be put in widespread use. British mine owners quickly picked it up as a large, powerful pump and within a decade it had spread throughout the mining districts. It worked by having a primitive steam-powered piston pull a very large, very heavy balance arm down with a big clunk at the bottom, then letting gravity pull it back up with a big clunk at the top. It used a lot of coal to produce one stroke, so much so that you needed a colliery nearby. Worse, the clunks made it unfit for use in factories; you could hardly have all your looms jerk to a halt at every stroke. Factories continued to use water wheels.

Then in 1759 James Watt, then an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, invented major enhancements to the university’s Newcomen engine. From there he turned out a steady series of enhancements, evolving into the famous Watt engine. Not only did it produce far more energy with far less coal than the Newcomen engine, it was much smaller and didn’t have the clunk. You could use it to power factories. True it was expensive, but it was such an improvement that the larger factories quickly adopted it. As later inventors fiddled with it, it became smaller and lighter. By the 1830s you could put in on a wheeled frame to create a mobile steam engine, capable of pulling a train or moving itself to a field. (Railed trains had been in existence for more than a century, but they were pulled by animals or track-side Newcomen engines.)

SCO: Strathclyde Region, South Lanarkshire, Clydesdale, Lanark, New Lanark Mills, Steam engine [Ask for #268.604.]
The New Lanark Mill installed this steam engine to provide electricity. They continued to use water wheels to run the looms and spinning mules. [Ask for #268.604.]


ENG: The Northwest Region, Lancashire, The Pennines, Burnley Borough, Briercliffe, Queen Street Mill, Boilers that fire the steam engine which still runs this functioning Victorian textile factory [Ask for #270.387.]


Boilers that fire the steam engine which still runs this functioning Victorian textile factory in Briercliffe, near Burnley in Lancaster. [Ask for #270.387.]

Inventors started looking for ways of making the power source even more efficient. Of these the water turbine was a direct descendent of the water wheel. Its first design in the 1820s was correctly seen as an improved water wheel, one that used curved blades to increase the speed at which the wheel turned. By the late 19th Century a miller could buy one from a Sears catalog to replace his old fashioned vertical wheel, and such a mill still grinds corn this way in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the 20th Century steam replaced water, and these souped-up water wheels now power virtually every commercial electricity generator, with coal, gas, or nuclear energy boiling the water into steam. Jet engines were also derived from water turbines, substituting burning fuel for steam.

North Carolina: The Great Smoky Mtns Region, Swain County, Great Smoky Mountains Nat. Park, Newfound Gap Road, Mingus Mill, Elevated millrace entering mill [Ask for #195.022.]


The mill race for this traditional grist mill disappears into the building. It uses a small metal turbine under the structure instead of a large wheel on its side. This is Mingus Mill in North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near Cherokee. [Ask for #195.022.]

These two innovations, looms and water wheels, were all it took to produce factories, powerful engines, electrical power grids, jet airplanes, classical economic theory, Marxism, and computers. They produced the 21st Century.

WAL: Northern Region, Flintshire County, Clwydian Hills, Holywell, Greenfields Valley Heritage Park, Water cascades over a mill pond's brick weir, in these ruins from an 18th C. copper rolling plant, now in a forest. [Ask for #246.071.]


This brick weir is part of a mill pond dam in Wale's Greenfields Valley, once heavily industrialized but now a heritage center. [Ask for #246.071.]
Article by Jim Hargan
First published in Jim's Brit, July 2016.
Jim's Brit
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