John Kay (1704–80)

The brilliant inventor John Kay was one of the most significant figures of the early Industrial Revolution. His invention of the flying shuttle for weaving stimulated successive inventions in the mechanisation of textile production.

Kay was born near the town of Bury in north-west England at the beginning of the eighteenth century. His family were farmers but at the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a ‘reed-maker’, who made the combs that separated the warp threads on handlooms. He left his apprenticeship within a month as he said he had already learned everything about the trade. He devised a method of separating warp threads with flattened wire instead of the traditional split reeds or canes, which broke frequently. He travelled around England selling the new wires to weavers.

After this first success as an inventor, Kay looked for other ways to improve textile manufacture. In 1730 he patented a machine for twisting reed twine. Then, in 1733, he patented the ‘wheeled shuttle’ – later called the ‘flying shuttle’. This replaced the traditional shuttle that weavers passed across their looms to take the weft through the warp. His new shuttle had wheels and pointed ends and was thrown across the loom by springs. It ran on a board between boxes at each end, controlled by a chord in the weaver’s hand. The invention doubled the speed of weaving. It also made it possible to weave broad cloth with one person instead of two and to weave wider pieces than before. Kay set up a partnership at Colchester in south-east England to manufacture shuttles and charged a rent for using them. He continued to improve his design.

Kay found it difficult to collect royalties from weavers. Many made their own shuttles and the legal costs to sue them for breaking his patent nearly made Kay bankrupt. He was threatened by weavers whose livelihoods were affected. Nevertheless, the invention was taken up in the woollen industry and from the 1750s for weaving cotton. It was used across England by the 1790s and a century later in the vast textile industries of Japan, India and China.

In 1747 Kay moved to France to introduce his invention with support from the French government. He was paid a fee and pension on condition that he cut off his involvement with the English textile trades. His shuttle was adopted in French textile production from around 1753. However, he returned to England at least five times to try to enforce payments for his invention and his pension was revoked in 1759. After he decided to stay in France his pension was given back to him in 1770 and he worked on other ideas with the French authorities, including ones for excavating canals, regulating temperature and manufacturing silk.

Kay’s wire reeds and his flying shuttle were used worldwide but he remained in financial difficulty until his death. His son Robert developed the drop-box, which allowed several shuttles to be used simultaneously to weave patterned textiles.