While it's perhaps only small comfort, history suggests that Americans themselves are some of the best in the world at corporate espionage and theft, and have been since the American Revolution. (Wouldn't it be interesting to net out the purloined IP we gather in each year, just to see what our "balance of theft" looks like?) Among the very first beneficiaries of stolen technology, and still one of the most important in American history, was the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Slater Mill is a kind of "ground zero" for the American edition of the Industrial Revolution, the first place where English factory technology--the latest system for mechanized textile production--was firmly planted in the New World. Financed by William Almy and his father-in-law, Moses Brown--and just up the road a piece from the Brown family's namesake university--Slater Mill was the first successful cotton factory in the United States.
|This is the Blackstone River, which has several names as it flows from Worcester to Providence. The yellow structure to the left is Slater Mill with the Pawtucket Falls in the foreground. The Art Deco building (dating from 1933) in the center of the picture is the Pawtucket City Hall. I managed a 90-minute visit to the Mill site a couple of weekends ago.|
At the close of the Revolutionary War, Americans found themselves having shifted from being the strongest colony of the most powerful nation on Earth to becoming a pitifully weak competitor to their former mother country. Among other commercial blows, Americans discovered that the British could manufacture and ship cotton clothing to North America more cheaply than Americans could manufacture it for themselves.
Enter Samuel Slater, a British lad apprenticed to Jedediah Strutt, one of the largest textile manufacturers in England. By the time Slater had completed his apprenticeship at age 21, he was Strutt's mill overseer and well versed in both its machinery and labor practices.
|A portrait of the older, wealthy Samuel Slater inside the Slater Mill Museum.|
One especially important partner to Slater was David Wilkinson, a blacksmith from Smithfield, Rhode Island, who moved to Pawtucket in the early 1780s. Wilkinson eventually built a mill next to Slater's, producing equipment for dozens of new factories.
|Wilkinson's rubblestone mill was built around 1810 and housed a machine shop, spinning mill and blacksmith shop. If you visit today you can see a gallery and a water-powered machine shop. . .|
|. . .if the water is flowing the day you visit. . .|
The genealogy of the cotton revolution in the North Atlantic goes something like this: John Kay introduced the flying shuttle in 1733, doubling the productivity of weavers. In 1764, James Hargreaves's spinning jenny enabled a single worker to manage eight of more spools of yarn at once. Five years later, Richard Arkwright introduced the water frame--an automatic, continuous spinning frame that forever shifted textile manufacture from the home to factory--and it was these machines that Slater learned to operate in England and established in Pawtucket.
As Americans went about fighting their Revolution, England's Samuel Crompton combined the best features of the spinning jenny and water frame into his "spinning mule" which allowed for a dramatic leap in the volume and quality of fine, uniform thread. Paired with James Watt's revolutionary steam engine, launched the same year as the Declaration of Independence, this cascade of innovation created an industrial juggernaut with a ravenous appetite for cotton. Not long after, Eli Whitney built his cotton gin, allowing southern Americans to harvest as much short-staple cotton as they had land (and, unfortunately, slaves) to work.
As British historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, "Whoever says Industrial Revolution says cotton."
|Here's a cotton plant growing outside the Mill. The bolls have yet to open, a bad sign given that it was late September and the nights in New England already growing cold. It takes 200 growing days a year to successfully raise short-staple cotton.|
|The green seeds. They look peaceful enough, but they are tenacious.|
|Ginned cotton, still dirty and ready to be carded.|
|500 lbs. of cotton, the way a mill might receive it.|
|And speaking of espionage, Sir Richard Arkwright's patents were overturned in 1785 amid charges that he had stolen the original designs.|
|Here's Samuel Crompton's famous spinning mule.|
|The birds were underwhelmed.|
|I wonder what Samuel Slater would have thought?|
We're lucky to still have Slater Mill, almost lost to two fires in 1912, but finally opened as a museum in 1955.
|The Pawtucket Falls|
|It reads: "Here the first cotton mill in America was built, 1787; incorporated February 3, 1789; visited by Washington October 30, 1789; burnt 1828; Charles Frederick Smith, Donor; 1897." That puts it some six years before Slater. The entire story of the Beverly Cotton Manufactory is here. Unfortunately, the site of the mill is now home to a strip mall and pizza joint.|
|If it were me, I would most certainly have a sign out front that reads "Washington Ate Here."|