Edmond Cartwright (1742–1823)

The Church of England clergyman, poet and inventor Edmond Cartwright started a revolution in the mechanisation of textile weaving. While his own machines were ineffective, other inventors developed his patent with important results for the textile industry worldwide.

Cartwright was born in the east midlands of England, near Nottingham. He studied at Oxford University and became a clergyman in his home region. By chance he met people from the cotton trade in 1784. They told him that the output of cotton yarn was growing fast due to the inventions of Richard Arkwright, and that it was likely to grow even faster when Arkwright’s patent expired. As cotton weaving was with hand-operated looms they believed there would not be enough weavers for the yarn produced. Cartwright applied himself to the problem and patented his first power-loom the next year.

He found many problems with his machines. Their action often failed, and they were not much more productive than hand looms – they were not fast and operators could only manage a single loom. He set up a cotton factory of his own at Doncaster in 1787 and patented improved looms in 1789 and 1792. However, his factory failed financially and a Manchester mill that installed his equipment in 1790 burned down.

Cartwright also patented a machine for combing wool in 1789 and a rope-making machine in 1792. In 1810 he was awarded a grant of £10,000 by the British government in recognition of his achievements for industry. He retired to a farm in south-east England where he died aged 80.

Although he proved that weaving by machine was possible (it was used previously only for silk ribbons), many refinements were needed before mechanical looms were effective for all textiles. Handlooms continued in use for a long time. By 1812, a quarter of a century after Cartwright built his factory, there were only 2,400 power looms in Britain’s cotton mills. However, by 1820 the technology was established in Europe and America. By 1850 there were almost a quarter of a million machines in use in British cotton mills alone.