John (Johann) Edler von Thornton (1771–1847)

John Thornton is an important example of the many individuals who enabled the diffusion of technologies during the Industrial Revolution by taking their skills and knowledge to another country. He worked in the cotton industry in Britain and then helped to establish mechanised textile industries in two regions – the city of Hamburg and lower Austria.

He grew up on a farm in Yorkshire. His first job was with the Chorlton Twist Company in Manchester. He may also have worked with McConnel and Kennedy in Manchester, a firm that had a water-powered cotton spinning factory and built spinning machines for other manufacturers. At this time, Britain banned the export of machinery from the country’s innovative textile industries and the emigration of skilled workers, but entrepreneurs in Europe and America were keen to compete. Thornton emigrated to the city of Hamburg in 1799 where he was commissioned by a merchant, George Christoph Hansen, to build a mill on the English model. Thornton brought other key workers from England to help establish theJ factory.

In 1801, Thornton was recruited at Hamburg by an entrepreneur and agent for the Habsburg crown, Karl Glave-Kobielski, who was also an industrial spy in England. As a result, Thornton built the first water-powered cotton factories in Austria – at Hernals and Pottendorf near Vienna. Investment came from the 'Leih und Wechsel Bank' created by Prince Joseph II Schwarzenberg. From 1802 until 1843 Thornton was director and part-owner of the mill at Pottendorf. It employed 1,800 people by 1811 and was one of the largest cotton factories in Europe. Thornton was ennobled in 1812 as Johann Edler von Thornton.

In 1838 he built a mill for spinning flax in Pottendorf. He also supplied equipment for weaving, aiding growth throughout Austria’s textile industries. His brothers followed him to Austria and were involved with cotton mills close by: Joseph Thornton established a mill at Münchendorf in 1814 and Jonathan Thornton owned a mill at Ebenfurth in 1826.