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William Radcliffe (1760-1842)

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William Radcliffe (1760-1842) was a British inventor and author of the essay Origin of the New System of Manufacture, Commonly Called Power loom Weaving.

Born in 1760, Radcliffe came from a modest family which made the transition from farming to weaving. His father taught William about carding and spinning.

In 1785, the younger Radcliffe purchased several spinning machines that had been developed by James Hargreaves. (Hargreaves machines, called the Spinning Jenny, were the first wholly successful improvement on the age-old spinning wheel. Its advantage was to multiply many times the amount of yarn that could be spun by a single operator. This development and others such as weavers being able to rely on uninterrupted supplies of yarn led to spinning being concentrated in factories.)

In 1789, Radcliffe opened a large cotton weaving factory at Mellor, in Derbyshire. Radcliffe further streamlined the process by inventing a machine to improve the quality of cloth.

Radcliffe publicly committed himself to the goal of mechanizing weaving.

1794 He and his partner [presumably Ross of Radcliffe and Ross] used their combined resources of £11,000 to buy the empty factory built by Samuel Oldknow in the Hillgate, Stockport. Here they concentrated production and recruited Thomas Johnson of Bredbury, near Stockport, an ingenious weaver, to work on the problem, Radcliffe specifying objectives and Johnson designing mechanical solutions. Modifications were recorded in four patents, taken out in Johnson's name (to conceal their source and value), between 1803 and 1807.

One source[1] describes the development as follows:-
"The great obstacle to the development of the power loom was, that it was necessary to stop the machine frequently, in order to dress the warp as it unrolled from the beam, which operation required a man to be employed for each loom, so that there was no saving of expense. This difficulty was happily removed, by the invention of an extremely ingenious and effective way of dressing the warp before it was placed in the loom.
"The dressing machine was produced by Messrs. Radcliffe & Ross, cotton manufactures of Stockport; but they took out the patent in the name of Thomas Johnson of Bredbury, a weaver in their employment, to whose inventive talent the machine was chiefly owing.
"Wm. Radcliffe thought that the most effectual way of securing for the country the manufacturing of the yarn, was to enable the English to excel as much in weaving as they did in spinning. He saw the obstacles to the accomplishment of this object, but being a man of determined purpose, he shut himself up in his mill, on the 2d.of January, 1802, with a number of weavers, joiners, turners, and other workman, and resolved to produce some great improvement. Two years were spent in experiments. He had for his assistant, Thomas Johnson, an ingenious but dissipated young man, to whom he explained what he wanted, and whose fertile invention suggested a great variety of expedients, so that he obtained the name of the "conjuror" among his fellow-workmen. Johnson's genius, and Radcliffe's judgement and perseverance, at length produced the dressing machine; and admirable invention, without which the power loom could scarcely have been rendered efficient. [A description of the process followed, omitted here].
"Radcliffe and his partner took out four patents in the years 1803 and 1804; two of them for a useful improvement in the loom, the taking-up of the cloth by the motion of the lathe; and the other two for the new mode of warping and dressing. Johnson, in whose name they were taken out, received by deed the sum of £50 in consideration of his services, and continued in their employment. Radcliffe's unremitting devotion to the perfecting of this apparatus, and other unfortunate circumstances, caused the affairs of his concern to fall into derangement, and he failed."

Radcliffe contributed to the debate amongst entrepreneurs on what constituted profits in a capitalist system. In a May 1, 1804 letter which was never sent but later published in an 1811 book called "Letters on the Evils of the Exportation of Cotton Yarns", Radcliffe said he regarded profit as being made up of two parts: interest on money and a sort of entrepreneurial wage.”

In 1828, he wrote the essay 'Origin of the New System of Manufacture, Commonly Called Power loom Weaving', later reprinted in J. F. C. Harrison's Society and Politics in England, 1780-1960 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965).

1842 He died

A Testimonial from 1836

In the March number of Blackwood's Magazine there a very ably written article on the cotton manufacture, from which we extract the following notice of the ingenious and worthy individual whose name appears at the head of the article, and which, we trust, will have the effect of drawing public attention to the benefits which have resulted to the manufacturers of this country from his discoveries. "Wm. Radcliffe was, or rather is, (for he yet living) one of the extraordinary men in an era surpassingly fertile in the production of untutored extraordinary talent. The boldness, ardour, and enterprise of Arkwright, seems in him combined with the patience, coolness, and inventive faculties of Crompton. Besides two patents for his dressing machine, he took out other two for most important improvements in the loom the taking up the cloth the motion of the lathe. He bore a prominent part in those discussions respecting the unrestricted exportation of yarns to which we have alluded, and published mote than one pamphlet on the occasion. He formed one of various delegations to London, and exerted himself strenuously in every way the side the manufacturing interest, in which he had himself large stake. The detail of all these events, of his discoveries, and his misfortunes, now lies before us in a bulky pamphlet of two hundred and sixteen pages, entitled the "Origin of the new system of manufacture, commonly called Power-loom Weaving, and the purposes for which this system was invented and brought into use, fully explained in a narrative containing William Radcliffe's struggles through life, written himself."

"The style is simplicity itself; it bears in every line the impress of fidelity and candour, for his heart is in his pen. We have all the early and successful struggles of self taught genius, whilst a more affecting relation of ill-deserved persecutions, which have embittered the evening of his days, and reduced him from the situation of a prosperous manufacturer to a state of indigence, if not want, it has never been our lot to peruse. Descended from a family in ages past of great respectability, but long lowered to the position of the small farmers, some of whom are still to be found eking out the deficiencies of a scanty portion of land and the wants of a family with the loom and the wheel, he thus in brief and homely terms, describes his own beginning and outset in life.

‘My father resorted to the common but never-failing resource for subsistence at that period, viz the loom for men, and the cards and hand-wheel for women and boys. He married a spinster (in my etymology of the word), and my mother taught me (while too young to weave) to earn bread by carding and spinning cotton, winding linen or cotton weft for father and elder brothers at the loom, until I became of sufficient age and strength for my father to put me into a loom. After the practical experience of a few years, any young man who was industrious and careful, might then, from his earnings as a weaver, lay by sufficient to set him up as manufacturer, and though but few of the great body of weavers had the courage to embark in the attempt, I was one of those few. Availing myself of the improvements that came out while was in my teens, by the time I was married (at the age of 24, in 1785,) with little savings, and a practical knowledge of every process from the cotton-bag to the piece of cloth, such as carding by hand or by the engine, spinning by the hand-wheel or jenny, winding, warping, sizing, looming the web, and weaving either by hand or fly-shuttle, I was ready to commence business for myself; and by the year I was well established, and employed many hands both in spinning and weaving, as a master manufacturer.'

“The exportation question, although the first great cause of Mr. Radcliffe's ruin, was the immediate parent of the power-loom system. Failing in the one great object of inducing the minister to fetter it, he betook himself, with temper unruffled by disappointment, with a resolve and constancy rarely equalled, to discover a combination of weaving machinery which should enable the manufacture to absorb the still multiplying products of the spinnery. " Confident," as he expresses it, “that the system was to be found, I shut myself in my mill (as it were) on the of 2d. January, 1802, and with joiners, turners, filers, &c. set to work." After somewhat less than two years' unremitting labour, from which he suffered nothing to divert his own intense application or the labours of his men, he accomplished his object, and founded the power-loom system; but the difficulties and expense attending it," he adds, “ can only be appreciated by those who witnessed or experienced them the time." In fact these, with neglect perhaps of his regular business, fall of prices, and other misfortunes and persecutions, accelerated his ruin. Few men have deserved so well of their country, none better; the proofs will be found in those statements of the miraculous and still advancing prosperity of the cotton trade, which we shall shortly have to request the attention of our readers. The liberality of Messrs. Radcliffe and Ross (for he had then a partner) in opening their works at all times, and explaining their system to the public, was the subject of just commendation the time and since by the whole trade, and among others the late Sir Robert Peel, under whose advice Mr. Radcliffe acted in taking out his patents, with a view, as that prince among merchants and manufacturers suggested, that inventions of such transcendent importance nationally should be purchased by the legislature on behalf and for the unrestricted benefit of the nation at large.

In one of his improvements, that for taking up the cloth by the lathe, he generously instructed the late Mr. Horrocks, of Stockport, and permitted him to incorporate it in his patent for the improved power-loom, since and now universally in use. Upon Radcliffe's insolvency his patents were unscrupulously invaded ; his assignee commenced various actions in law against the offending parties, but was defeated by the powerful combination of the manufacturers leagued against him. The patent laws, as then constituted, afforded no protection; they were such, and so contrived, that, according to common saying, any man might drive a coach and six through them. At a later period, however, his signal services were acknowledged, and his wrongs sought to be redressed. With a generous sympathy for misfortune and ill-requited desert, which does them honour, the most eminent persons and firms connected with the cotton manufacture exerted themselves to procure for him a legislative remuneration. Memorials were numerously signed in his behalf by the Chamber of Commerce at Manchester, and the heads of houses there and elsewhere; but without the means to sustain the requisite expenditure for enforcing his just claims, they were answered only with civil delays and officially polite refusals; for Radcliffe had no borough vote or county interest wherewith to second of the pleadings in his cause. Remuneration, splendid with reference to its intrinsic value, was awarded to Dr. Cartwright for an invention crude and impracticable, and only of consequence as first demonstrative of the possible application of a principle. To the unassuming Crompton, although with niggard hand, was decreed recompence. Among others, thousands have been awarded to Mr. Babbage to prosecute to perfection his mechanical calcules, scientific curiosity assuredly, but of problematic practical utility. £5000 have been recently voted to Mr. Marshall (and richly did that greatest statistician of the day merit double the amount); whilst Radcliffe, to whose evidence and exertions Dr. Cartwright was mainly indebted for his public grant, remains alone, poor, unnoticed, and unrewarded, for discoveries and improvements which are yet pouring millions annually into the treasury of national accumulation. If we have been led upon this subject into greater prolixity of detail than was our original intent, it has arisen from the desire to contribute our humble quota to the arrears of justice due to an individual who has been the greatest benefactor, in the economical sense, to his country of any man now living. Radcliffe, like Arkwright, is the founder of great system, but, unlike him, cast upon evil times. The contemporary Arkwright, and the friend of the late Sir Robert Peel, is the more entitled to consideration at our hands, and at those of all honourable and patriotic men, that he has fallen from his high and hardly earned estate, and that the cause, the great cause which consigned him to beggary, opened to the industry and enterprise of his country new mines and unexplored regions of boundless wealth."[2]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 'Memoir of Samuel Slater: The Father of American Manufactures' by George S White, Philadelphia, 1836
  2. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Saturday 5 March 1836