James Hargreaves (1721–78)

James Hargreaves was a weaver from Lancashire in north-west England, who invented the ‘spinning jenny’, which was the earliest of a succession of inventions that enabled the industrialization of cotton spinning. The name ‘jenny’ for his machine came from the words ‘engine’ and its shorter form ‘gin’.

Hargreaves could not read and write and worked as a domestic hand-loom weaver with his own spinning wheel and loom in his cottage. At this time, demand for thread was increasing due to the growing output of weavers who had begun using the new flying shuttle of John Kay. Before the invention of Hargreaves, cotton thread was made by drawing it through an operator’s fingers from a spinning wheel to a spindle, one thread at a time. In around 1764, Hargreaves built a wooden frame that could hold a spinning wheel working a row of spindles. The thread was drawn between wooden bars. The machine was still powered manually and required a skilled operator but it could feed eight (later sixteen) spindles rather than one. He used it in his own workshop and supplied machines to nearby mills. Although the thread was not as strong, it made domestic spinners far more productive.

In 1768, when neighbouring domestic workers saw Hargreaves’ invention was reducing the price of cotton thread, they broke into his house and destroyed his machines. He fled from his home area to the city of Nottingham in the English midlands. There, he went into partnership with Thomas James to build a small spinning mill at Hockley to supply cotton for stocking weavers.

In 1769, Richard Arkwright patented the water frame, which advanced on Hargreaves’ machine. It produced higher-quality thread and was driven by waterwheel. Hargreaves patented his spinning jenny the next year, but by that time he had already sold many machines and they had been copied by other people. He continued to work at his own spinning mill until his death.

Arkwright’s methods soon dominated factory production of cotton but the spinning jenny continued to be used in domestic workshops to spin both cotton and wool for many decades.